A national disgrace
By Richard Wright
Condensed by Native Village
There are about 113,000 students living on Canadian reserves. Most
attend one of 515 on-reserve schools; the rest attend off-reserve
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
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.
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.”
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
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.
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.