A recent article in The Atlantic magazine, “The Blackfeet Brain Drain” made an impression on me. Written by Sterling Holywhitemountain, the first lines read: “Some Native kids who leave to pursue education find themselves stuck between a longing to help their community and the lack of employment back home.”
Brain drain or human capital flight often refers to a migration of educated individuals from a developing country to a developed country. In Indian Country, it refers to the migration of individuals who leave the rez to get an education but don’t come back.
Brain drain has been massively studied around the world, but few people have taken the time to study the phenomenon in Indigenous communities in North America. The few studies out there confirm that the lack of housing and job opportunities in First Nations communities are the main factors that keep graduates from returning home.
Knowing there were fewer job opportunities in Eeyou Istchee, I aimed for a career that would guarantee me a position when I graduated. I know a lot of folks who chose a field that would help them get a job on their territory rather than choosing a field they are truly passionate about. Being away from home and studying something you’re not too sure about fuels a pattern.
“Thus began a pattern – drop out, reenroll, drop out, reenroll,” writes Holywhitemountain. “Each move home brought an overwhelming sense of relief after the stultifying atmosphere of attending class with non-Indian students I found bafflingly humourless. (In even the darkest of times, Blackfoot prefer to laugh at life and one another.) But returning home also showed me what awaited if I stayed there: substitute-teaching gigs, working at the diner, or managing my family’s convenience store.”
A lot of post-secondary students get delusional after coming home. Giving back to their family and community is a source of motivation for them, and then they come back only to realize that they’re not given the opportunities to do so. Harsh reality check. Living in remote areas where the economy is dominated by oil, mining, forestry and hydro-power industries is also conflicting for Indigenous youth in Canada. Why would I even go to school when I can work in a mine and make big money?
Holywhitemountain adds: “Without improved economies, higher education simply contributes further to reservation students’ confusion about where they belong in this world.”
This year, the Cree Nation Government started an initiative that aims to match new post-secondary graduates with jobs. It’s something reassuring for those of us who fear they might not be able to thrive at home.
I was fortunate enough to finally have some people on the territory reach out and tell me they will mentor me and send me back home after I graduate. So, this summer, I will leave Eeyou Istchee again to complete my degree, knowing that I am now in a much better place in my life than when I dropped out of university. I’m also lucky that I come from a territory with greater opportunities than others. I see my friends grieving the fact that they might never go live back home, because they don’t want to go back to an overcrowded house and they are “not born in the right family to work at the band.” And it hurts.