Provincial and Territorial Ranking

Education and Skills in the Territories

Key Messages

  • The territories’ Aboriginal populations generally lag behind their non-Aboriginal counterparts on educational attainment and adult skills.
  • Key contextual factors that help explain territorial education and skills performance include language and culture, family and community support, traditional economic roles, infrastructure, and governance.
  • Higher educational attainment helps close the skills gaps between the territories’ Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal adult populations.
  • Data for the territories are scarce for most of the indicators used to benchmark education and skills attainment in the provincial report cards. More work is needed to support skills assessment of K–12 students and adults in the labour force, particularly in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories.

Why look at education and skills in the territories separately from the rest of Canada?

In assessing the territories’ education and skills performance, we need to consider the context that helps explain why average territorial performance is distinct from, and in many cases lower than, the provincial averages. In the territories, infrastructure challenges, governance issues, and the proximity of educational institutions all affect performance on education and skills. The territories, particularly Nunavut and Northwest Territories, also have substantial Aboriginal populations, and so it is important to situate the territories in their historical, cultural and socio-economic context when discussing their education and skills outcomes.

How is the territories’ education performance measured?

Following the framework used to assess provincial performance, we use indicators of performance in three areas—K–12 skills, post-secondary education, and adult skills—to examine the education and skills performance of the territories. Unfortunately, data for the territories are not available for most of the indicators used to benchmark education and skills attainment in the provincial report cards. Therefore, instead of creating report cards for the territories, we compare a set of relevant performance indicators for each area:

  1. K–12: The data source for primary kindergarten to Grade 12 student skills used in the provincial report cards is the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment, but these tests were not done in the territories. Instead, information on the territorial performance of K–12 students is limited to territorial assessments that measure student competencies in English and math. Very little public data are available for student assessments in Nunavut. High-school attainment rates for all three territories are also compared.
  2. Post-secondary education: Data for the territories at the post-secondary level are more readily available and comparable to country and provincial performance than K–12 data. University and college attainment rates and apprenticeship attainment rates (which include trade certificates) are examined. However, given that the 2011 National Household Survey was not a census, data may not adequately represent certain Northern Aboriginal population areas. Global non-response rates for the territories were highest in Yukon (29.9 per cent), followed by Nunavut (25.2 per cent) and then the Northwest Territories (16.1 per cent). Disaggregated non-response rates for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal populations in the territories were not available.
  3. Adults and work: As in the provincial report cards, the skills of adults are assessed for the territories using the OECD’s Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC). Under PIAAC, adults are tested on their literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving skills in technology-rich environments. The National Household Survey was used to assess the income advantage of completing post-secondary education.

What affects education and skills in the territories?

A multitude of factors influence an individual’s choice of pursuing and completing various levels of education, ranging from personal and family characteristics to the availability of opportunities. In the territories, factors that affect education and skills include language and culture, family and community support, traditional economic roles, infrastructure challenges, and governance issues.

Language and culture

Almost a third of Aboriginal children and youth in the territories have an Aboriginal language as their sole mother tongue.1 This estimate is largely skewed by Nunavut’s majority Inuit population, among which almost 80 per cent of individuals reported speaking Inuktitut as their mother tongue in the 2011 National Household Survey. Having an Aboriginal first language likely affects performance on standardized skills tests administered in English or French, like the PIAAC tests. Research on Nunavut’s evolving primary school curricula indicates that abrupt transitions in language of instruction, from Aboriginal languages to English or French, may contribute to a loss of proficiency both in Aboriginal first languages and in English or French.2

Family and community support

Parents and other adult guardians have an enormous impact on children and youth, from serving as role models to setting conditions in the home children grow up in. High-school attainment in the territories is lower than the national average, and research indicates that children whose parents’ or guardians’ education attainment is less than high school have a tendency to underachieve at school.3 The historical impacts of residential schools continue to affect Northern Aboriginal families and may colour parents and guardians’ perceptions of the educational system.

Extended family and community institutions, such as preschools, provide social support that is vital to raising children in Northern communities. Studies of early childhood education among Northern Aboriginal populations indicate that participation in preschool programming leads to more academic achievement.4

Traditional economic roles

Families in a number of Northern Aboriginal communities across the territories still hunt, fish, and trap as part of their daily household economy. These skills have no corresponding measure in international surveys of adult skills and are not adequately captured in Statistics Canada surveys. Yet traditional skills have an important role to play in Northern Aboriginal wellness, identity formation, and in shaping young Northerners’ livelihood aspirations.5


Deficits in critical infrastructure such as all-season roads, energy distribution, and broadband telecommunications impede the delivery of education services to remote Northern communities. The territories’ limited broadband telecommunications facilities restrict their citizens’ ability to participate in the digital economy or take advantage of innovative applications such as e-learning. Given that new workplace skills, such as problem-solving in technology-rich environments, depend on access to adequate computing infrastructure and connectivity, many remote Northern and Aboriginal communities continue to lag behind.

Yukon has the most developed road, energy, and telecommunications infrastructure among the territories. Its relatively higher population density and connectedness are an advantage for public service delivery and economic development. Educational institutions, such as Yukon College, also have a physical presence in most Yukon communities and can take advantage of Yukon’s developed infrastructure to deliver services beyond the capital of Whitehorse.

Governance issues

Overlapping jurisdictions between territorial, Aboriginal, and in some cases federal programs contribute to governance challenges that may impede progress on issues such as curriculum design, program funding, and student assessment. Moreover, several recent studies—including a series of Auditor General’s reports—point to a lack of planning, accountability measures, and human resource capacities to implement and monitor educational policy in the territories, particularly in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories.6 Small and remote self-governing Aboriginal communities may also face resource challenges in supporting educational services for their members.

Other important factors affecting education and skills performance are health and wellness and the availability of programs and services.

How are the territories’ youth performing on skills tests?

Northwest Territories

The Northwest Territories, which uses some of Alberta's curriculum (especially in high school), uses functional grade levels and Alberta Achievement Tests to systemically measure K–12 achievement in language arts and mathematics.

Functional grade levels, used for both language arts and mathematics, are an indication of the curriculum level at which a student is working throughout the year, according to the teacher’s assessment.7 For the 2011–12 academic year, the most recent available data, between 60 and 67 per cent of students in Grade 9 or below (except Grade 1) were performing at the appropriate grade level and above in English. Greater variability is found in math, where 61 to 79 per cent of students in Grade 9 or below (except Grade 1) were performing at the appropriate grade level and above. Math performance in particular appears to decline at more advanced grade levels. Students in Grade 1 fared slightly better on these assessments, coming in at 83 to 90 per cent performing at the appropriate grade level and above for English and math.

There is however, a sharp contrast in performance between students in the capital, Yellowknife, and in regional centres (Hay River, Fort Smith, and Inuvik) as opposed to outlying communities. Almost 80 per cent of Yellowknife students operate at or above their level in grade 9 English and math, while less than 40 per cent of students in outlying communities do. It should be noted that the capital has a greater concentration of non-Aboriginal children and youth than the rest of Northwest Territories.8

Scores on the standardized 2011–12 Alberta Achievement Tests for English language arts and mathematics in grades 3, 6 and 9 indicate lags in overall territorial achievement. With the exception of math skills in Grade 3, less than 50 per cent of students performed at an acceptable standard in either English or math.9


Beginning in the 2012–13 academic year, the Yukon education system began to follow the B.C.-based Foundation Skills Assessment format rather than the previous Alberta Achievement Tests. Tests based on the B.C. model are given to students in grades 4 and 7 to assess their abilities in English language arts and mathematics. The results for the 2012–13 tests indicate that between 57 and 60 per cent of Grade 4 students met expectations in English and math. This number declines slightly for students in Grade 7, where 54 to 56 per cent of students met the required expectations. The test results show that non-Aboriginal students fare marginally better in English reading skills, and that 5–7 per cent more non-Aboriginal students are meeting expectations in English writing and numeracy skills.


Unfortunately no public data are available on student K–12 performance in Nunavut. Nunavut’s K–12 curriculum is undergoing a radical transformation in response to major criticisms of its original program of bilingual education.

In 2006, the Berger Commission on Nunavut Land Claims Agreement Implementation directed national attention to the challenges that arise in designing appropriate K–12 curricula for Northern Aboriginal students. The Commission’s report observed how, under Nunavut’s original bilingual program, Inuit students learned Inuktitut in primary school until an abrupt transition period in grades four and five, when English became the core language of instruction and Inuktitut was offered as a supplementary course. The Commission concluded that, based on the evidence, this transition has plausibly contributed to Inuktitut language loss while decreasing Inuit student confidence in both English and Inuktitut.

The territory now has three language on instruction models to try and meet the different needs of its youth and smooth out the transitions between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal subject areas. The territory is also re-examining its approach to student assessment.

How do the territories perform on high-school attainment?

A high-school diploma is generally a prerequisite to post-secondary education and an essential driver of workforce readiness. As such, high-school attainment is also a proxy indicator of socio-economic development. High-school graduation rates vary widely across the territories. In 2011, the high-school attainment rate was nearly 88 per cent in Yukon, 78.4 per cent in N.W.T., and 54 per cent in Nunavut.

Aboriginal populations have comparatively poorer high-school attainment rates. Within the territories, the largest high-school attainment gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal populations is in Nunavut, where there is a 53.8 percentage point gap. N.W.T.’s high-school attainment gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal populations is 32.4 per cent, while Yukon’s is 20.2 per cent.

How do the territories perform on post-secondary education attainment?

Post-secondary education attainment indicators measure the share of the working-age population with a college diploma, an apprenticeship certification, a trades certification, or a university degree. College programming, apprenticeships, and trade certificates play particularly important roles in territorial skills development and workforce readiness.

It is important to note that those with a post-secondary education diploma or degree may have earned it in another territory or province and not necessarily in the territory they live in. The attainment indicators therefore are measures of the qualifications of the individuals living in the territories and not of the territories’ education systems. Furthermore, populations that do very well on college attainment do not always exhibit equally high levels of attainment for apprenticeships or university degrees. Since the total percentage of college, apprenticeship, and university graduates cannot exceed 100 per cent, increasing rates of graduates from one order of post-secondary education will decrease rates for the other types.

College, apprenticeships, and trades certification

Rapid socio-economic and industrial growth in the territories has brought with it growing demand for highly skilled individuals. Given the lack of university-based post-secondary options in the territories, colleges—such as Yukon College, Aurora College (N.W.T.), and Arctic College (Nunavut)—play a critical role in helping individuals further their education without having to leave their communities or regions. Colleges and training facilities offering vocational and apprenticeship training opportunities may also help relieve the workforce demands of non-renewable resource sectors in the North. If these sectors are to keep growing and expanding their benefits to local communities, those communities will have to provide them with the highly skilled technical workforce they require.

In 2011, Yukon led the territories in both college and apprenticeships attainment, with 23.5 per cent of its working-age population having a college diploma and 13.2 per cent having an apprenticeship diploma. Based on our definition of college attainment, which includes CEGEP and other non-university certificates or diplomas, Yukon has the highest concentration of college graduates aged 25 to 64 in Canada. Rates in the Northwest Territories differ only slightly on college and apprenticeship attainment, at 22.5 per cent and 11.5 per cent. In Nunavut, 17 per cent of the population has a college education and 10 per cent has completed an apprenticeship.

Rates of college attainment for Aboriginal populations across the territories are lower than for non-Aboriginal populations; however, the opposite is true for apprenticeships. The largest gap in college attainment between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal populations is in Nunavut, whereas the smallest gap is in the Northwest Territories.

College attainment rates among Aboriginal populations also vary more than among the non-Aboriginal populations across the territories. Nunavut has the lowest Aboriginal college attainment rate, at just over 15 per cent, while N.W.T. and Yukon have rates of roughly 20 per cent.


There are no universities physically based in the territories. All three territorial colleges offer university degrees in partnership with southern universities and professional organizations such as the Council for the Advancement of Native Development Officers (CANDO) and the Registered Nurses Association of Northwest Territories and Nunavut. However, while distance-based and online university degree options may be available to territorial residents, they depend on supporting infrastructure, such as Internet connectivity, which may not be adequate, particularly in small remote communities outside the territorial capitals.

Yukon leads the territories on university attainment, with the Northwest Territories following close behind. Nunavut does not do as well—only 13 per cent of its population has a university degree. In 2011, the share of the working-age population with a university degree in Yukon was 12.8 percentage points higher than in Nunavut.

There are significantly large differences in university attainment between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal populations within the territories. The largest gap is in Nunavut, where 47.8 per cent of the non-Aboriginal population has a university degree (which is much higher than the national average) compared with only 2.2 per cent of the Aboriginal population. This gap is largely explained by the working-age population who studied outside Nunavut. When we limit our analysis to location of study within Nunavut, only 13 per cent of the working-age non-Aboriginal population has a university degree at bachelor level or above, compared with 58 per cent for non-Aboriginals whose location of study was outside Nunavut.10 Yukon has the highest percentage of Aboriginal individuals with a university degree, at 9.4 per cent, followed by the Northwest Territories at 6.1 per cent.

Is there a gender gap in post-secondary attainment?

The gender gap is calculated by taking the absolute value of 1 minus the ratio of men to women with post-secondary, or tertiary, education to the ratio of men to women in the overall population. For details on this calculation, please see the provincial report card on the gender gap in tertiary education.

When we exclude apprenticeships from the calculation, each of the territories has a calculated index of less than 1, indicating that the ratio of men to women who have completed post-secondary education is less than the ratio of men to women in the overall population. In other words, women make up a bigger share of the population with a tertiary education than their share in the population would suggest. This trend is the same as seen across the provinces and Canada as a whole.

Aboriginal populations experience a larger gender gap than non-Aboriginal populations in the territories when apprenticeships are excluded.

The gender gap drops dramatically when we include apprenticeships in the calculation. This drop is even more pronounced within the Aboriginal population. This indicates that, in the territories, a larger number of Aboriginal men than women pursue apprenticeships as a viable post-secondary option.

Aboriginal populations in the Northwest Territories experience close to gender equality (when including apprenticeships), while non-Aboriginal populations in Nunavut experience the greatest gender imbalance.

What are the income advantages of having post-secondary degrees and certification in the territories?

Education improves labour market prospects for individuals, reduces their risk of unemployment, and boosts earnings. One proxy for understanding these benefits is the income advantage associated with higher levels of education (for methodology, see the provincial report card on income advantage for university graduates).

Income advantage of college, apprenticeships, and trades certification

Among the territories, the income advantage of a post-secondary certificate or diploma below the bachelor’s level is highest in the Northwest Territories, where individuals with this education earned $127.73 for every $100 a high-school graduate earned in 2010. The Northwest Territories significantly outperformed Yukon ($119.82) and Nunavut ($120.63). In absolute terms, Nunavut had the highest income for people with a post-secondary certificate or diploma below the bachelor’s level in 2010. The high absolute income may be partially explained by the large proportion of the population employed by the government. In 2010, 48.4 per cent of total employment in Nunavut was in the government and education sectors, translating to roughly 5,600 jobs.11

Income advantage for university graduates

University graduates earned $154.45 in Nunavut, $150.01 in Yukon, and $149.57 in the Northwest Territories for every $100 earned by a high-school graduate in 2010—making the territories relatively equal in terms of the university income advantage. The high income advantage is partly due to scarcity, as the territories have unmet demands for university graduates in the non-renewable resources and public service sectors.

Income advantage of post-secondary degrees for Aboriginal populations

With the exception of women in Nunavut, Aboriginal individuals across the territories receive a higher income advantage for post-secondary education than non-Aboriginal individuals. In addition, among Aboriginal individuals, the income advantage is consistently higher for men than for women, suggesting that men experience larger gains than women from pursuing higher education in the territories.

Aboriginal university graduates consistently earned over $160 for every $100 earned by Aboriginal high-school graduates in 2010. Among Northern Aboriginal individuals with a post-secondary certificate or diploma below the bachelor’s level, the Northwest Territories offered the highest income advantage in 2010, with post-secondary graduates earning $127.56 for every $100 earned by a high-school graduate. By comparison, the income advantage for post-secondary graduates in Yukon was $116.94 and in Nunavut was $118.94 in 2010.

How do the territories perform on measures of adult skills?

Compared with their provincial counterparts, the territories, except for Yukon, generally underperform on the OECD’s Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) measures of literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving in technology-rich environments. However, this is largely due to the contribution of Aboriginal scores to the overall territorial score. The territories have the highest concentrations of Aboriginal peoples in Canada, with 81 per cent of the population aged 16–65 in Nunavut, 46 per cent in the Northwest Territories, and 21 per cent in Yukon.12

When we disaggregate Aboriginal from non-Aboriginal territorial respondents, we find that the proportion of non-Aboriginal respondents in the territories perform just as well as, if not better than, their non-Aboriginal provincial peers on literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving in technology-rich environments.

If we control for educational attainment in the territories, we find that the average performance of the non-Aboriginal population still exceeds that of the Aboriginal population—although not by as much. It is important to note that many Northern Aboriginal people report having an Aboriginal language as their mother tongue, likely affecting their performance on the PIAAC tests, which are administered in only English or French.

PIAAC oversampled the Aboriginal population to better assess the skills of this diverse population.13

Adults with inadequate literacy skills

The Conference Board considers literacy skills below level 3 on the PIAAC to be inadequate. Among the territories, Nunavut has the highest proportion of individuals with inadequate literacy skills, at 83.2 per cent of the population, mainly as a result of its majority Inuit population. In general, Aboriginal populations in the territories include relatively more adults with inadequate literacy skills. Nunavut’s performance on the PIAAC survey is a study in contrasts, as its Aboriginal population has the highest share of respondents with inadequate literacy skills (91.9 per cent), while its non-Aboriginal population has the lowest share with inadequate literacy skills (33.5 per cent).

For more information on measuring literacy skills, please see the provincial report card.

Adults with high-level literacy skills

The Conference Board regards adults as having high-level literacy skills if they test at levels 4 or 5 on the PIAAC. Yukon has the highest proportion of individuals with high-level literacy skills, outscoring Nunavut, which has the lowest, by 12.7 percentage points.

Findings for the estimated percentage of subpopulations operating at PIAAC’s definition of high-level literacy are more difficult to interpret because of the greater variability in respondent scores. Nonetheless, taking standard errors into account, there are clearly steep contrasts between the performance of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal populations in all the territories, with the non-Aboriginal populations performing considerably better. Nunavut has the greatest gap in performance between its non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal populations. Its non-Aboriginal population has the highest average share of people with high-level literacy skills among the territories, and its Aboriginal population has the lowest share.

For more information on measuring literacy skills, please see the provincial report card.

Adults with inadequate numeracy skills

The Conference Board considers numeracy skills below level 3 on the PIAAC to be inadequate. Among the territories, Nunavut has the highest share of adults with inadequate numeracy skills (87.3 per cent), while Yukon has the lowest (55.8 per cent).

As is the case with literacy skills, there are large disparities between adult Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal populations’ numeracy skills. Nunavut has the highest gap in performance between Aboriginal populations and non-Aboriginal populations. Over 90 per cent of its Aboriginal population has inadequate numeracy skills. Meanwhile, Nunavut’s non-Aboriginal population ranks best among the territories for having the lowest share of the population with inadequate numeracy skills.

For more information on measuring numeracy skills, please see the provincial report card.

Adults with high-level numeracy skills

The Conference Board regards adults as having high-level numeracy skills if they test at levels 4 or 5 on the PIAAC. Among the territories, Yukon had the highest proportion of individuals with high-level numeracy skills. Nunavut has the lowest share of its total population with high-level numeracy skills.

Across the territories, non-Aboriginal individuals fare roughly the same, with about 15 per cent of the population having high-level numeracy skills. However, there are large differences between the share of the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal populations with high-level numeracy skills within the territories. In the Northwest Territories and Yukon, less than 3 per cent of the Aboriginal population has high-level numeracy skills. Data for Aboriginal individuals in Nunavut were not available.

For more information on measuring numeracy skills, please see the provincial report card.

Adults with inadequate problem-solving skills

The Conference Board considers adults to have inadequate problem-solving skills in technology-rich environments if they fall into one of three groups on the PIAAC tests:

  1. They scored below level 2 on the PIAAC test on problem-solving in a technology-rich environment.
  2. They failed the test of their basic computer skills. A prerequisite for being able to assess proficiency in problem-solving skills was the completion of the computer-based version of PIAAC.
  3. They self-reported that they had no experience with computers.

Nunavut appears to have the lowest percentage of respondents with inadequate problem-solving skills in technology-rich environments; however, these results are biased by the fact that over 54 per cent of Nunavut’s Aboriginal respondents did not participate in the test.

If we disregard the potential for bias, the gap between the share of Aboriginal populations and non-Aboriginal populations’ with inadequate problem-solving skills is much smaller than the gap in shares of the population with inadequate literacy and numeracy skills. Yukon has the largest gap (12.2 percentage points) between the shares of the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal populations with inadequate skills. Yukon also had the lowest non-response rates for Aboriginal (25 per cent) and non-Aboriginal participants (12.3 per cent). In the Northwest Territories, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal populations obtained equivalent scores in inadequate problem-solving skills (although the Aboriginal non-response rate was over 36 per cent, compared with 10.3 per cent for non-Aboriginal respondents).

For more information on measuring problem-solving skills, please see the provincial report card.

Adults with high-level problem-solving skills

Individuals scoring at level 3 on the PIAAC are regarded as having high-level problem-solving skills in technology-rich environments. Non-Aboriginal populations fare better on this test than Aboriginal populations, although there is a lot of variation with both groups, especially non-Aboriginal populations in Yukon. Data at this skill level are not available for Aboriginal populations in Nunavut.

For more information on measuring problem-solving skills, please see the provincial report card.

What about Canada’s Northern provincial regions?

Canada’s Northern provincial regions have substantial Aboriginal populations and development characteristics that distinguish them from Southern parts of the provinces. Unfortunately, data are not as readily available for provincial Northern regions.

The Conference Board’s Centre for the North has conducted in-depth research into the challenges associated with northern education and skills development:


1    Julia O’Sullivan and Janet Goosney, Get Ready, Get Set, Get Going: Learning to Read in Northern Canada (Thunder Bay: Lakehead University, 2007).

2    Andrew Hodgkins, “Bilingual Education in Nunavut: Trojan Horse or Paper Tiger,” Canadian Journal for New Scholars in Education 3, no. 1 (June 2010).

3    Statistics Canada, The Aboriginal Peoples Survey at a Glance.

4    Ibid.

5    Siomonn Pulla, Building On Our Strengths: Aboriginal Youth Wellness in Canada’s North (Ottawa: The Conference Board of Canada, 2014).

6    See for example, 2013 November Report of the Auditor General of Canada: Education in Nunavut.

7    Functional grade levels are not ideal measures given that they are very subjective.

8    Government of the Northwest Territories, N.W.T. Releases 2013 Student Assessment Results, news release, September 12, 2014.

9    Ibid.

10    Statistics Canada, 2011 National Household Survey, Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 99-012-X2011059.

11    Source: Statistics Canada, Labour Force Survey. File Prepared by Nunavut Bureau of Statistics, January 14, 2014.

12    Statistics Canada, 2011 National Household Survey.

13    Statistics Canada, Employment and Social Development Canada, and Council of Ministers of Education, Canada, Skills in Canada: First Results From the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, Catalogue no. 89-555-X (Ottawa: Statistics Canada, 2013).

Please note:
The data on this page are current as of September 2014.

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