Substandard schools fail natives – Opinion – Substandard schools fail natives
July 14, 2008. Carol Goar

Here is a wake-up call, if ever there was one.

The 1996 Canadian census showed that 60 per of aboriginal students living on reserves did not complete high school.

The 2001 census showed no change – a 60 per cent dropout rate.

The 2006 census, released earlier this year, confirmed the dismal pattern. Six out of 10 kids living on reserves didn’t graduate from high school.

Virtually everyone agrees that education is key to lifting First Nations out of debilitating poverty. Yet Canada is failing to provide aboriginal young people with even the rudimentary skills needed to get a job in the modern economy.

“It is difficult to think of another issue that is so clearly a social and economic disaster in the making,” says Michael Mendelson of the Caledon Institute, who has just published a paper proposing a plan to improve Canada’s sorry record.

The fundamental problem is not money, he says. Ottawa provides aboriginal students with roughly the same per-capita grants as provincial school boards

Nor is it incompetence on the part of Indian and northern affairs. Most of the bureaucrats in the department genuinely want to make a positive difference in the lives of aboriginal people.

And it is not poor teaching. There are thousands of skilled and dedicated educators working on native reserves.

What’s missing is a framework to hold these pieces together. There is no aboriginal education system. There are 550 on-reserve schools scattered across the country, managed by individual First Nations. The majority are about two grades behind provincial public schools.

There is no one to develop curriculum, set standards, plan capital spending, buy equipment or provide teaching support.

“This is an old and outdated model of school organization,” Mendelson says. He compares it to the “non-system” of small rural schools that existed in most of Canada a century ago.

Ottawa can’t impose an education infrastructure on First Nations, he says. That would be paternalistic. Moreover, it would hearken back to the bad old days when the federal government forced aboriginal children to attend church-run residential schools, where they were harshly disciplined to wipe out their Indianness.

But waiting for hundreds of chiefs to come together and knit their local schools into a national network could take generations.

The solution, Mendelson says, is to give First Nations the tools and support they need to do the job now.

To start, Ottawa would invite aboriginal leaders to sit down and draft a First Nations Education Authority Act. It would establish an alliance of First Nations as the new authority over aboriginal schooling, replacing sections 114 to 122 of the Indian Act, which authorized Ottawa to send aboriginal children to residential schools.

Participation in the system would be voluntary. First Nations could opt in when they were ready. The governing council would be democratically elected.

Next, the federal government would make a legally binding commitment to First Nations to provide sufficient funding for education of comparable quality to that offered in provincially funded schools. It would seek a commitment from them to be accountable for the results.

Finally, arrangements would be made with the provinces to ensure that students could transfer between the two systems.

This concept is not revolutionary.

The Cree in northern Quebec have had their own school board for 30 years.

The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples recommended a Canada-wide education system run by First Nations 12 years ago.

British Columbia passed legislation, last year, providing legal recognition to a newly formed provincial First Nations Education Authority.

And Jim Prentice, who served as Indian affairs minister until last summer, told a parliamentary committee: “The biggest challenge with (on-reserve) education, I would submit, is not the dollars per se; it is rather the absence of an overall school system.”

The current minister, Chuck Strahl, is more guarded. He has recognized the “urgent need to reform First Nations education,” but shows no inclination to take the lead.

Leadership is exactly what is needed. Apologizing for the incalculable damage done by Indian residential schools, while correct and necessary, does not put things right. Canada has to build something better.

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