Joyless return for native students
TheStar.com – Opinion – Joyless return for native students
August 26, 2008. Colleen Schenk
The first week of school is filled with excitement and anticipation for millions of children as they head back to the classroom. But for First Nations children on reserves, it is blighted by the conditions they will find.
Poorly resourced, even dilapidated, on-reserve schools have become the standard First Nations peoples can expect and there is a long and growing list of them. In Ontario we call them “prohibitive to repair” schools. Conditions for First Nations children and youth are the subject of endless, often ignored, studies. The research shows that First Nations children face increased challenges to health and mental well-being with suicide rates among youth five to six times higher than is found in the general population.
An eloquent apology, even by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, will not address the glaring differences in education funding experienced by First Nations communities compared with the rest of Canada; nor will it hide the reality of inadequate nutrition, substandard housing and sanitation conditions, unemployment and poverty.
The small fly-in community of Attawapiskat has come to represent this great divide. This fall Attawapiskat children will go back to a leaking, mismatched and drafty huddle of portables where students are embarrassed to use a washroom and the gym is off-site. They have been waiting eight long years for a real school. They are expected to wait another five after the school has been reviewed in the 2009-10 school year.
Our country’s legacy of failing to meet the most basic needs continues despite the long overdue apology for Canada’s treatment of First Nations children. And yet we all know that a strong teacher, a good school and a little compassion can engender hope and open young minds to a world of potential.
Federal Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl, in the face of direct and personal appeals by the children of Attawapiskat, continues to ignore the power of education to open doors for them. Surely an adequate elementary school for 400 children in Attawapiskat or, for that matter, building decent schools in the many underserved First Nations communities across the country, is worth the investment?
We need to start asking some difficult questions of our government. Is it humane, never mind prudent or in the country’s best interests, to deny these elementary school students the chance to realize their potential in society? Research overwhelmingly confirms that intervening early in the lives of children through a nurturing learning environment will make a difference in their emotional and physical well-being. Education can heal and will empower when it is delivered with integrity in a positive, stimulating place of learning.
Will another school year pass without some action? It is no wonder that the community in Attawapiskat has taken their fight to the United Nations. They have the resilience and determination to accuse the government of Canada before the world of neglecting the rights of First Nations children under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Under this convention, every child has the right to an education and to a standard of living adequate for the child’s physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development. The case of Attawapiskat will almost guarantee international condemnation.
Across Canada, the story of Attawapiskat has inspired thousands of school children to raise their voices in a letter-writing campaign asking Strahl to honour an earlier promise to build a new school in that community. One ESL class of new immigrant and refugee students from Sunnyside P.S. in Kitchener couldn’t believe that this great country would deny First Nations students educational opportunities which they themselves, as newcomers to Canada, enjoy.
The weight of the past does seem to paralyze our ability as a nation to fully understand the legacy that has been visited on First Nations communities. We have to rise above that, because how we treat each other will also shape our future. Righting the wrongs of the past should begin with education; it is the key to empowerment and dignity. A quality educational experience should not be denied to future generations while the government wrangles over its own processes.
Schools are crucial for the health of a community. An integrated model of services to address the needs of First Nations children begins with a financial commitment to educational resources and healthy, stimulating schools built in the heart of the community.
Don’t apologize. Do what’s right. Now.
Colleen Schenk is president of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association.