Why ending Canadian control over First Nations education starts with you and me
As kids prepare to head back to school this week, I’m gathering up my PDFs and stocking up on coffee as I enter into the final year of my PhD. And yet, firmly entrenched as I am within academia, I still find myself asking just what the heck it is I’m doing here.
As it is for many native people, education has always been contested terrain for me. I’ve both loved the process of learning and loathed the many oppressive conditions in which education often takes place. Canadian classrooms were never designed for Indigenous kids to succeed, and although changes continue to be made, statistics tell us that most native youth never make it to graduation. It’s easy to see why: the still-recent legacy of residential schools lives on in Canadian classrooms through curricula that effectively force kids to think and act ‘mainstream’ if they want to succeed. So why be part of this system at all? This is something I continue to ask myself regularly, even as I push forward with this degree.
To be sure, education is a hot topic in native communities these days. Currently, the federal government is working with bands to bring reserve schools up to the same standards as other schools in Canada. In January 2012, the federal government promised to fund reserve or First Nations-run schools in BC at rates equal to other schools in the province, starting this month. But that additional $100 million – intended to improve basic literacy and math skills nationally over 3 years – continues to go largely unallocated. Which means the promise has been made, but its impact won’t be felt in classrooms this academic year.
Such dollars are on top of the $1.5 billion already spent by the feds on First Nations education annually. Yet that money is not translating into improved graduation rates: among all native students, fewer than half graduate with a grade 12 diploma. According to a 2010 speech by Canada’s Auditor General, native graduation rates have barely moved, if at all, over the years: in fact, the gap between First Nations graduation rates and those of Canadians at large has only grown. Clearly, efforts thus far to improve education for the majority of native communities have failed miserably.
Although efforts are being made to “indigenize” post-secondary institutions, what remains largely unchanged in mainstream schools are the broader educational systems and ways of conceptualizing “learning” and “success.” Because the current Indian Act still includes references to residential schools, the federal government has now committed to creating a ‘First Nations Education Act.’ And while it is hoped that the new act would focus on improving schools rather than forcing children to fit into existing educational structures, little has been done so far (No follow-through once again? Surprise, surprise).
So here’s an idea, and an almost-PhD educated one at that. Rather than throw money at the problem, or wait around for the feds to create a new act that only they would get to govern, why don’t we focus on the possibilities for individuals within our kids’ schools to engage in daily acts of decolonization? What about changing the curriculum to integrate ‘de-colonial’ and Indigenous perspectives? Indigenous counselors are already present in many schools, providing important support for native kids and programming that focuses on helping them to succeed.
But what else can teachers, principals and school board staff do to make these changes? Instead of slipping in that lone, isolated section on ‘native issues’ into the existing social studies course, students could learn a lot from how Indigenous peoples pass on knowledge, such as hands-on involvement and working with elders. Changes in teaching methods like these would not only give Indigenous kids a greater possibility of success, and a chance to learn in new environments (such as working on the land or in the community), it might also give non-native kids a greater chance at a more meaningful education.
And, of course, how can kids succeed at school when they’re lacking other quality-of-life essentials? When our kids are going hungry or lacking stable housing, writing that paper for class isn’t necessarily going to be much of a priority. Schools are also violent spaces for those students — native and non-native — who face bullying from their classmates, in the form of homophobia, racism, and the many ways of targeting kids who are just ‘different.’ The day to day realm of education has to be considered alongside other systems shaping the intimate lives of native kids and families.
At the same time, we might consider what jobs are available for people for whom the confines of the education system are just too stifling. If we truly value traditional knowledge – hunting, fishing, plants and medicines, storytelling, our artforms and ceremonies – communities need to commit to supporting individuals with an education that doesn’t just end with a certificate. The strength of our futures lies beyond merely economic solutions to community development.
When I was in high school, I was one of the few native students in my classes who excelled academically. And I was also one of the handful of native students who made it to grade 12. The good grades I got were more due to the support I received at home than the skills I learned in my classes. As a bookworm, I learned to write through my love of reading, and I am thankful that my mom instilled this love of books in me at a young age.
But even with this background, the post-secondary educational environment has presented challenges that have pushed me close to dropping out of school, and it was only due to the encouragement of individual professors that I persevered. Each time, I vowed never to return to academia, because I didn’t want to contribute to these oppressive systems that value only certain kinds of knowledge and certain kinds of students. I have now come to believe that these systems need Indigenous voices and ways of learning in order to change them from within. But operating in educational institutions comes at a great personal cost to those of us who fight our way through the systems that historically excluded us through policy, and continue to exclude us through oppressive practices.
Meanwhile, I have tried, in my own small ways, to support native kids with their challenges in school by helping out as a tutor, editing papers, speaking in classrooms, helping fill out forms (oh so many forms!), and sharing tips on how to make it through to graduation. This may not be offering much, but, to me, it seems more helpful than waiting for the government to do something that in the end will only reinforce their power over our learning.
So as we see all the kids packing up their knapsacks and heading off to school this week, let’s think about how many of them will still be there next June on the last week of school — and, sadly, how many of them won’t be. Apart from appealing for money or big government changes, I think we can do a lot as individuals to support Indigenous children to succeed. But we need to rethink what success might look like — on their terms, in ways that are also meaningful to their communities and family histories.
As for me, I’ll be dividing my days between talking to people and sitting at my computer, as I attempt to bring community knowledge out and on to the pages of my dissertation. Yes, it is once again time to put on that pot of coffee and get to work.
[ Photo: AANDC ]