Native Village
Youth and Education news
March 1, 2010     Volume 2


A national disgrace
By Richard Wright
Condensed by Native Village

Canada: There are about 113,000 students living on Canadian reserves. Most attend one of 515 on-reserve schools; the rest attend off-reserve public schools .

Year after year, a staggering 60% of students living on Canadian reserves don't finish high school. For Canada's population at large, it's only 14%.  This is called the “high school completion gap.”

Aboriginal students' lack of success has much to do with history. Beginning in 1867, Canada's federal government was responsible for educating First Nations youth. The government decided to partner with churches and create a residential school system. In 1969, this partnership ended, and the government took over.

The federal government didn't want the job and wanted to pass off First Nations education to the provinces. But Aboriginal leaders stepped in, saying control should given to First Nations bands.  They demanded “Indian control of Indian education ” through a culturally based curriculum, involved parents. and local control.

Jean Chrétien, then minister of Indian and Northern Affairs, agreed.  Within a year, the federal government was funding First Nations bands that wanted to operate their own schools.

Harvey McCue is founder of the Native studies department at Trent University. He says the action had needed more thought. “How can any serious observer or bureaucrat reasonably expect all 680 or so bands, the majority of them with fewer than 1,000 residents and situated in rural and remote locations, to manage effectively an education program?” he asked.

Michael Mendelson is called the "the guru of systemic change" for First Nations education.  He agrees with McCue.

“Everyone who has spent time looking at the issue has concluded that the process of devolution is incomplete," Mendelson  said. "The federal system hasn’t taken any responsibility or leadership for establishing the institutions and organization necessary so that bands can step in and build a proper education system. The present non-system is failing. It is difficult to think of another issue that is so clearly a social and economic disaster in the making.”  

A 2004 study by Indian and Northern Affairs found that on-reserve students were about two years behind other students. Mendelson said new evidence from British Columbia shows that 57% of First Nations students are one or more years behind in reading, and 66% are one or more years behind in math.

Sue and Dan Vainer live on Ontario's Beausoleil First Nation reserve along with about 450 other residents. Sue says Beausoliel's isolation, staff turnover, and low wages and benefits plague their school. The school loses 2 of its 13 teachers every year.

When Sue joined their Band’s education committee in 1996, curriculum was a challenge. It was based on the principal's whims and bore no relation to what Ontario was teaching.  “They didn’t have any policies or procedures for what teachers were supposed to do or what students were supposed to achieve,” she says. 

The school later adopted and customized Ontario's curriculum to their reserve's culture.

Hiring  is another problem. “The Band wants to hire people from the reserve, which is natural,” says Dan Vainer, “but it means they may be hiring people who are really not the best candidates for the job.”

Another issue is a less intensive education  “The standards here aren’t what they are on the mainland,” Dan says.“  Students from the reserve are way behind.”

The Vainers' daughter, Stephanie, is a case in point. She finished 8th grade at an on-reserve school with the highest achievement award. But off-reserve, in 9th grade, reality set in -- Stephanie was just a mediocre student in town.

“It was too hard for her, and she wasn’t prepared. Her grades dropped to below 60%.” Dan said.

Stephanie worked hard, bounced back, and now attends college. But where Stephanie succeeded, many fail.

Mendelson is calling for a First Nations education act to help improve their schools. Many are listening to this call.  “Am I optimistic?” asks Mendelson. “I think there’s very strong agreement on this and lots of interests aligning to see that it gets done.”

One very positive sign, Mendelson says, is that First Nations groups are focusing more on their own initiatives. “Bands have been setting up various multi-band educational organizations,” he said.


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