Preparing Indigenous youth for a digital future

September 03, 2021 | RBC Economics


Over the next decade, 750,000 Indigenous youth will move through the education system and into early careers. What will they need to thrive?


The discovery of unmarked graves of Indigenous children who died at Canada’s former residential schools is a painful reminder of our history and the need for continuing focus on Truth and Reconciliation. The effects of centuries of systemic oppression continue to impact the lives of Indigenous Peoples. This report looks to the decade ahead and some of the ways in which we can help the next generation of Indigenous youth to thrive in our rapidly changing economy.

The high stakes of a faster future

Over the next decade, 750,000 Indigenous youth will move through the education system and into early careers. What will they need to thrive in the Canadian economy of the 2020s? Advanced technologies are transforming every sector in the country. From mining and forestry to retail and entertainment, the demand for digital skills is accelerating—and disrupting old jobs and ways. Traditionally, financial capital was seen as the main driver of economic development. Now we know, there’s a need for capital, technology and skills to all work together. Drawing on our ongoing effort to understand the skills challenges facing all young Canadians, this report will focus on the human capital and skills needed for Indigenous youth to thrive in a technology-rich economy.

Over the past 18 months, RBC Economics and Thought Leadership led a series of conversations with Indigenous youth, educators, employers and community leaders to assess the opportunities and challenges ahead. Will this new generation be ready to turn the Fourth Industrial Revolution to their advantage? Conversations began in-person, but the COVID-19 pandemic shifted them online. The crisis also sharpened our focus. Indigenous youth in all parts of Canada told us about adapting to online learning, honing their technical skills, and figuring out how best to fit into the digital future that’s crystalizing all around them: a world of remote sensors, automated vehicles and artificial intelligence. They shared a vision of themselves as a bridge to bring digital skills, economic opportunity and prosperity to their families, peers and communities.

To fully realize what the future can offer, we must be mindful of the history that brought us here. Generations of Indigenous youth have faced unique barriers to access and opportunity and have often been pushed to the periphery of economic life. In many places, pressing needs like clean water, appropriate housing and equal education continue to go unmet. RBC is committed to the reconciliation journey, and for over 25 years has been working on specific initiatives with Indigenous Peoples and communities to generate genuine and meaningful change. That work is ongoing. For this report, we focus more narrowly on where we believe the broader economy is heading and what we feel needs to happen in order for Indigenous youth to access the opportunities of the 2020s.

Their success will be key to Canada’s success—and to the ongoing process of reconciliation into the 2030s.

The great skills shift

Visit Meadow Lake in Saskatchewan these days, and you will see workers preparing the ground and installing piping and wiring for an Indigenous-led bioenergy project that will eventually supply clean power to the SaskPower grid. Or head to Yellowknife, where jewelry designer Tania Larsson is creating new pieces for her 17,300 Instagram followers. Look east to Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island, and you’ll find the Membertou First Nation busy 24/7 operating a world-class data centre that provides data storage and recovery for clients.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution was already reshaping how we work and live—pushing more of what we do online, disrupting established companies and industries, and forcing a rethink of education and training. The pandemic only accelerated that shift. This isn’t to say all Canadian youth are going to become coders or machine learning specialists. Rather, it is a signal that the base understanding of employment now includes the skills needed to work with digital and other advanced technologies like drones, robotics and the Internet of Things—and these expectations are growing. These shifts are affecting all of us. But for Indigenous Canadians, they present unique challenges that could impact socioeconomic progress, opportunities and the chance at fuller participation in the Canadian economy in the years ahead.

In our 2018 report, Humans Wanted, we identified the skills that will prepare Canada’s youth to thrive in the workplaces of the future. We concluded that success will depend on two things: the skills to work with people (which we called foundational skills) and the skills to work with technology (also known as digital skills). While foundational skills like critical thinking and communication have always been important, acquiring digital skills will enable youth to work with technology as it permeates the workplace, rather than compete against it.

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Indigenous workers face a higher risk of automation: Youth will need to enter the workforce with digital-resilient skills

Distribution of total workers by risk level of computerization of tasks, based on Frey & Osborne (2017)

Distribution of total workers by risk level of computerization of tasks, based on Frey & Osborne (2017)

Source: Statistics Canada, RBC Economics

In this latest part of our three-year Humans Wanted endeavor, we trained our skills lens on Indigenous youth. Relative to the non-Indigenous population, fewer Indigenous youth are in jobs that require future-focused skills such as critical thinking and reading comprehension. And nearly two-thirds of jobs held by Indigenous workers will need a different mix of skills in the future. Mining companies will need fewer truck drivers—and more people to remotely operate driverless trucks, as well as to program, maintain and repair them. Nurses in remote communities will have to use digital tools to communicate with and assist doctors hundreds of kilometers away.

The digital shift is upending sectors where Indigenous Peoples have traditionally built careers, including the skilled trades; natural resources and agriculture; and the sales and service sector, which covers roles such as consultants and repair workers. It’s also enabling new opportunities where Indigenous employment is high, but career advancement has been slow, including health and education.

In the years ahead, we expect more automation and more humanity, and a new creative age that bridges the two. Are Indigenous youth ready?

First, the good news. When it comes to foundational skills, Indigenous youth are confident in their abilities, according to a survey by RBC Future Launch, which asked thousands of program participants about their skills development through online surveys between 2019 and 2021, including 2,000 Indigenous youth aged 15-29. (Respondents who rated their skills at 7 out of 10 or higher are considered “confident.”)

From critical thinking to communication to collaboration, Indigenous youth rated their skillset near the same level as their non-Indigenous peers.

Indigenous youth express a high degree of confidence in their foundational skills: Competence in these "human" skills is central to the future of work

% of respondents who rated their skills at 7+ out of 10

% of respondents who rated their skills att 7+ out of 10

Source: RBC Future Launch survey

But the digital divide is real. The survey revealed a 13-percentage-point gulf in confidence between Indigenous and non-Indigenous youth when it comes to digital literacy. The gap was widest among those still in school and narrowed as young people gained work experience.

Addressing the gap starts with the basics. The reality is, high-speed Internet still hasn’t come to large parts of rural and northern Canada, limiting online activity for many Indigenous Peoples. In 2017, the CRTC found that about 24 percent of households in First Nations communities had high-speed internet, compared with 97 percent of urban and 37 percent of rural households. Among Indigenous Peoples 15 years old and up, 76.4 percent use the Internet daily; among all Canadians, daily usage is 91 percent.

Narrowing the gap would enable Indigenous youth to become more proficient in the use of technology and increase long-term earning potential: levelling up on digital skills has been shown to increase wages for Indigenous workers by up to 36 percent. Meanwhile, the cost of inaction is steep: Indigenous workers are underrepresented in high-tech sectors and only 1.2 percent of the high-tech workforce identifies as Indigenous. In June 2020, senior members of Canada’s tech, innovation and advanced industry sectors launched the Coalition of Innovation Leaders Against Racism (CILAR). The coalition’s mandate is to connect Black, Indigenous and People of Colour to the innovation sector by focusing on five priorities: youth skills development, job opportunities, venture and founder support, investment and funding as well as community leadership.

The risk is that Indigenous youth will be underrepresented everywhere as digital permeates every sector. In our roundtable discussions and interviews, many youth were aware that a basic level of knowledge, like email and word processing, would not be enough to get a good job, and they were frustrated by the lack of learning opportunities.

Left to their own devices—literally—many are taking their digital training into their own hands, advancing their skillset through creative, non-traditional means. On TikTok, Inuk college student Shina Novalinga (@shinanova), shares short videos with her 2.3 million followers, showcasing her throat singing. Theland Kicknosway, an Indigenous teen advocate and hoop dancer, is harnessing his following on Instagram (@the_landk) to raise money for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls and Two-Spirit people.

This tells us Indigenous youth are going to play a key role in bridging their communities to the digital age. Imagine how much more they could do if given the right tools. In August 2020, amid the COVID-19 push toward online learning, De Beers Group donated 117 new laptops to schools in seven Indigenous communities in the Northwest Territories and 10 refurbished computers to the Yellowknife Public Library. As part of the Shaw acquisition, Rogers committed $1 billion to the Rogers Rural and Indigenous Connectivity Fund and said the company will consult with communities to create Indigenous-owned ISPs.

Optimism about the future was a key characteristic in the roundtables and the survey, where nearly 40 percent “strongly agreed” when asked if they were optimistic about achieving their goals. Many young people were setting their sights on new cities and post-secondary institutions to build their skillsets and set themselves up for promising careers.

As young people navigate this transition, the desire for mentors is strong. This is complicated by the fact that many youth do not see Indigenous Peoples in the roles they aspire to, given the rapidly changing economy—but where they exist, they can be key to personal and spiritual development and help the next generation achieve strong outcomes.

Early, positive career experience is emboldening young Indigenous Peoples: the Future Launch survey found that employed Indigenous youth are even more confident when it comes to communication, collaboration and critical thinking than their non-Indigenous peers. Most notably, employed Indigenous youth rate their persistence (or the ability to manage under stress) higher than non-Indigenous youth—at 76 percent compared to 69 percent.


Equipping the next generation of Indigenous Canadians with future-focused education, skills and opportunities is a shared responsibility. Governments, employers, educators and communities each play key roles. Some measures that may help:

  1. Fulfill the federal commitment to provide high-speed Internet, including broadband and related infrastructure to every Canadian by 2030, prioritizing underserviced Indigenous communities.
  2. Increase access to venture capital, with special focus on the new Indigenous Growth Fund, a $150 million commitment from the Government of Canada, Business Development Bank of Canada and other government agencies, which can be a signal for future investments.
  3. Allocate additional funding for digital devices and technology courses in primary and secondary schools, both on- and off-reserve, under the transfer formulas used by Indigenous Services Canada and the provincial and territorial education ministries.
  4. Close the gaps in access to work-integrated learning for Indigenous youth, by entrenching the subsidy for Indigenous students under the federal Student Work Placement program, expanding remote WIL options and through matching tools between employers and candidates.
  5. Expand academic bridging programs at universities, colleges and apprenticeship programs that boost fundamental and digital skills for Indigenous learners and improve outcomes in higher learning.
  6. Address the significant gaps in Canada’s Indigenous labour market data by increasing funding for data collection and coordination under the federal Indigenous Skills and Development Training program.
  7. Leverage recent investments in online education by school boards and post-secondary institutions to expand STEM course offerings for Indigenous students through high-quality remote and hybrid learning in their schools.
  8. Expand representation of Indigenous culture, languages and content in online spaces by making digital-first approaches a priority for arts councils, and increasing the reach of Indigenous social media influencers who are promoting their culture online.

This article contains excerpts from RBC’s “Building Bandwidth: Preparing Indigenous youth for a digital future”—a report that looks to the decade ahead and some of the ways we can help the next generation of Indigenous youth thrive in our rapidly changing economy. Read the full report here