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Timothy Little, 16, of Ahousaht, B.C., works on his homework. He expects to graduate this spring. Photo by Richard Wright

A national disgrace

Sixty percent of children living on First Nations reserves do not graduate from high school. Aboriginal leaders and educators agree: something must be done to fix Native schooling

By Richard Wright

Andrea Titian is a high school dropout. It’s a label she’s carried for more than two decades. She was once an eager student at the Maaqtusiis School built in 1986 on the island reserve of Ahousaht, on the west coast of Vancouver Island. Then Titian fell out with another student, ran afoul of the school administration, left school and never went back. Now, at 40, the soft-spoken woman deeply regrets giving up. Failing to complete high school has determined the course of her life. She has been unemployed for years. “It’s very hard to find any kind of work without a Grade 12 certificate,” she says.

To make ends meet, she and her 13-year-old son, Tony, live with Titian’s grandmother in a weather-beaten house by the harbour. Tony climbs the hill to the Maaqtusiis School where he’s in Grade 9. He’d better keep on climbing that hill if he knows what’s good for him, says Titian. And she’s not joking.

While almost anyone would agree that closing the residential schools was the right thing to do, many don’t realize that the problems for First Nations youth didn’t end there. Year after year, a staggering 60 percent of students living on reserves in Canada have failed to complete high school, compared to 14 percent of students in the population at large. That disparity has become known as the “high school completion gap,” and since Titian’s school days it has grown worse, not better.

Shawn Atleo calls that a national disgrace. Atleo is the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations and a hereditary chief of Ahousaht, where Titian grew up. The high school completion gap was the centrepiece of Atleo’s campaign for national leadership last summer. “Through education and skills training, we have an opportunity to overcome the attempts of the residential school system to destroy our culture and language,” his campaign literature stated. “This is our time to empower our fast growing youth population in ways that will ensure a future of opportunity, success and prosperity.”

Atleo has joined the right battle for access to equal education at the right time, says Michael Mendelson, a senior scholar at the Caledon Institute for Public Policy and the author of two seminal papers on First Nations education.

According to Mendelson, there are about 113,000 students who live on reserves in Canada and attend elementary or secondary schools. Most attend one of the 515 on-reserve schools, while the rest attend public schools off-reserve. Like other kids, these children need post-secondary education in order to succeed in the modern economy. But with the current high school drop-out rate, “this door is shut for the majority of students on reserve,” Mendelson says.

The roots of this disaster are historical. Under the Constitution Act of 1867, the provinces were tasked with educating all Canadians except First Nations Canadians. That responsibility fell to the federal government. The feds, as we know, partnered with churches to create the residential school system. In 1969, this partnership ended. The federal government took back sole responsibility and set about closing the residential schools. It was soon evident, though, that while some problems had been solved, new problems had arisen.

The federal government did not want to provide schooling for a fraction of the population, so it proposed handing off First Nations education to the provinces. First Nations leaders wanted no part of being passed from one level of government to another and scuppered this idea. If the federal government was giving up control, then control should pass to them. In December 1972, the National Indian Brotherhood, predecessor of the Assembly of First Nations, demanded “Indian control of Indian education,” including a culturally based curriculum, parental responsibility and local control.

In a burst of bureaucratic speed, Jean Chrétien, then minister of Indian and Northern Affairs, accepted the proposal one month later. Within a year, the federal government was funding individual First Nations bands that wanted to operate their own schools.

Harvey McCue, a First Nations educator and founder of the Native studies department at Trent University in Peterborough, Ont., says the action was ill considered. “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 in a 2003 posting on the Turtle Island Native Network.

Mendelson concurs. “Everyone who has spent time looking at the issue has concluded that the process of devolution is incomplete. 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,” he says. “It is difficult to think of another issue that is so clearly a social and economic disaster in the making.”

On Christian Island in Georgian Bay, Ont., Sue and Dan Vainer live on the Beausoleil First Nation reserve along with their two daughters and about 450 others, most of them Ojibwa. Michelle, 13, and Stephanie, 19, both attended the on-reserve elementary school as well as mainland public schools in nearby Midland and Penetanguishene.

The Vainers describe some of the issues that plague their on-reserve school. Staff turnover is one of them, says Sue. The isolation of the village and lower wages and benefits drive good teachers away, she says. “One year, Stephanie had six teachers!” While that may have been an exceptionally bad year, the school loses two of its 13 teachers every year.

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

Curriculum is yet another challenge. When Stephanie started elementary school in 1996, Sue joined the Band’s education committee, where she soon discovered that the curriculum was based on the whim of the principal and bore little relation to what was being taught elsewhere in the province. “They didn’t have any policies or procedures for what teachers were supposed to do or what students were supposed to achieve,” she says. Some years later, the school adopted the curriculum of the provincial schools, customized to reflect the distinct culture of the reserve.

The upshot is a less rigorous education, says Dan, who is not First Nations and grew up in Toronto. “The standards here aren’t what they are on the mainland,” he says. “Students from the reserve are way behind.” Stephanie is a case in point. She finished Grade 8 at an on-reserve school with the highest achievement award. Then in Grade 9, reality set in; she was just a mediocre student in town. “It was too hard for her, and she wasn’t prepared. Her grades dropped to below 60 percent,” Dan says.

The belief that on-reserve schools are not rigorous enough is shared in reserves across the country. A 2004 study by Indian and Northern Affairs found that students in any given grade in on-reserve schools were about two years behind other students. Mendelson says new evidence from British Columbia, not yet published, shows that 57 percent of First Nations students are one or more years behind in reading and 66 percent are one or more years behind in mathematics.

Stephanie worked hard and bounced back. She’s now a second-year student of fashion design at Seneca College in Toronto. But where Stephanie succeeded, many fail. Peggy McGregor knows about that. She also grew up on Christian Island, attending the elementary school and moving on to high school on the mainland with eight other classmates. She was the only one in her cohort to graduate. She went on to get an honours BA in public administration, a bachelor of social work and a master’s in education. Now, as director of education for the Beausoleil Band, she is trying to solve the problems that cause kids to drop out. And easing the island-to-mainland transition is part of her solution.

McGregor has developed a program that allows Grade 9 students to take their winter term in a makeshift classroom at the community rec centre, rather than boarding off-reserve. “Starting off properly is key,” she says. “Studies show that if kids get their full credits for Grades 9 and 10, they have a pretty good chance of going all the way.”

The Vainers say Peggy McGregor is great, but the challenges she faces are much, much greater. McGregor tacitly agrees; the graduation rate for her 2009 cohort was only 45 percent. “Not so good, relative to the Ministry of Education’s goal of 85 percent,” she admits.

But perhaps the Beausoleil First Nation should count its blessings. Shawn Atleo is just back from a fact-finding trip to northern Manitoba, where he met children who hadn’t seen the inside of a classroom for three years. “We need infrastructure,” he says. “We need about 60 new schools. I guess that’s one thing, isn’t it? I mean, if you don’t have a school, there’s no gap to measure.”

Atleo’s home village of Ahousaht is getting a new school, a project that was in the works long before Atleo set his sights on the national AFN leadership. Ground was broken last September for a school that will serve grades 7 to 12, including four teachers’ offices and 11 classrooms, with extra space for five more rooms. “We had to give the older kids their own place, with properly designed classrooms, and furnishings the right size for adolescent bodies. We’ve had very young ones in the same building as the older kids for too many years,” says school board chair Julia Atleo, Shawn’s aunt.

The new school has been a tonic to the community. “This is the biggest positive news since I came here 15 years ago,” enthuses vice-principal Scott Maschek. Math teacher Don Frewing, a Maaqtusiis School staffer for three years, adds that the excitement is contagious. “This year there has been a big push on for education coming from community leadership and from parents,” he says. For example, Frewing is emphasizing the academic-stream math instead of the tech-stream math that had been standard fare. Having a new school inspires young people to step up, he says. “The positive buzz surrounding the new school building has certainly been a factor.”

The students have been caught up in the excitement, too. Twelve are expected to graduate next spring. “Last year we didn’t have a great graduation ratio,” Frewing says, “but this year we expect a big percentage of the high school class to graduate, higher than the national average.”

But infrastructure isn’t everything; human capital is crucial, too. The Mi’kmaq reserve of Membertou on Cape Breton Island, N.S., is celebrated for having closed the high school completion gap. The reserve itself has no high school, so Membertou youth attend one of three off-reserve schools in nearby Sydney. This year, 45 of them are attending area high schools, and Bruce Herney, education counsellor for the Band, keeps a close eye on each and every one. Like Peggy McGregor, Herney brings strong credentials to the job. He has a bachelor of social work and a bachelor of education, and he’s working on a post-graduate degree. His recipe for success as a counsellor is less academic than pragmatic: one part common sense and two parts elbow grease, he says.

Every third week, Herney talks with the Grade 12 cohort as a group. He asks them, “What do you need to do to graduate? What are the issues that are going to prevent you from graduating?” He also meets with each potential grad individually every other week. Those who are struggling get extra attention, he says, but so do students who are excelling. Doing well can be a double-edged sword, Herney explains. There’s a lingering suspicion of formal education that goes back to the residential school days.

“When I was growing up, some people thought that if you got a good education, you were turning your back on your culture, becoming European,” Herney says. “What our kids are just beginning to appreciate is that Aboriginal culture has evolved. Getting a good education is a part of Aboriginal culture now, not apart from it,” he says.

Herney is proud that his approach is paying off. In the seven years he has been there, Membertou has had an 85 percent graduation rate. “I gave myself a pat on the back,” he says.

Atleo’s war on the high school completion gap will require lots of foot soldiers, like Herney and McGregor, to make sure students make good use of the new schools he wants to build. But while committed people can improve things, the fundamental problems can flood back when those individuals burn out or move on. “You put a great principal in, and all of a sudden the school picks up,” Mendelson says, “or a band gets a particular chief in and they manage to turn things around. And that’s great, but it’s based on one individual, and it can’t be duplicated. It’s not systemic change.”  

Mendelson has become the guru of systemic change for First Nations education. What he and a growing number of other observers, including Harvey McCue, are pointing out is that there simply is no education system for First Nations comparable to the public system’s network of education ministries and boards of education.

Mendelson is calling for a First Nations education act to complete the process of devolution begun in 1972. Such an act would allow First Nations to establish properly funded school boards with clear legal empowerment and the necessary regional agencies to support them, he says. Many are listening to this call: the Harper government, the Globe and Mail editorial board and First Nations leaders across the country. “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 have been gravitating toward the concept on their own initiative. “Bands have been setting up various multi-band educational organizations.”

The most promising of these efforts is in British Columbia, where a number of First Nations have collaborated on an agreement with the federal and provincial governments. This agreement would establish a First Nations Education Authority, a kind of regional school board that would take over responsibility for all matters concerning kindergarten to Grade 12 schooling from individual participating bands. The funding formula for this body has not yet been finalized. But, Mendelson says, there is much that has already been worked out that could provide a model for other First Nations groups across the country, including the roles and responsibilities of the new authority, its relations to the federal government, dispute-resolution mechanisms and other details.

“I really support that sort of tripartite exercise,” says Shawn Atleo. “I think something like the First Nations Education Authority really could address the need to ensure high standards across the board. Our people have taken ownership of the challenge. It’s been a struggle for sure, but it’s been 150 years of turmoil, and that doesn’t turn around overnight. We’re just getting started.”

Andrea Titian is making a fresh start, too. Twenty-five years after dropping out, she has dropped back in. Titian is taking courses through North Island College, a community college that sends a tutor to the reserve. She wants to complete Grade 12, finally, and then take a first aid course that would qualify her to work as a caregiver to the elderly. Titian’s son, Tony, intends to go to college. Titian thinks it’s easier for him than it was for her 25 years ago. Community thinking has changed, she says. Then it was exceptional. Now it’s expected.

Shawn Atleo would be rooting for them both. “It is fundamental in civil society that all people be well educated,” he says.

Click here
to read an interview with the late Elsie Robinson, who attended a United Church-run residential school.

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