We need to “maintain a sense of urgency” about transforming the education system for aboriginal youth who need fair funding, better access to technology and a curriculum teaching more Canadians about their rich histories and cultures, says the Assembly of First Nations national chief.
“I would fear we would lose another generation to a sense of despair and hopelessness that we simply can’t afford as a country and that we can’t afford as First Nations for that to happen,” says Shawn A-in-chut Atleo in an interview with Our Kids Media.
He notes the dismal statistics of success involving graduation rates and opportunities for students, from kindergarten to post-secondary schools, belonging to the First Nations community, the largest among the aboriginal groups in Canada.
“Schools and educators in my view need to accept the challenge that for too long First Nations have not been really included neither in the curriculum of their institutions nor have First Nations students succeeded to the right that Canadians do,” he says. ” . . . we need to have a sense of urgency amongst all educators and the education system in general to place a top priority on not only the support and success of indigenous learners – First Nations, Inuit and Métis – but that all Canadians should learn about the real history as well.”
Atleo was among the aboriginal leaders and representatives meeting with education ministers from across Canada during the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (CMEC) conference in Toronto on Feb. 23. The conference by CMEC, the intergovernmental body of education ministers, focused on aboriginal and international education, early-childhood education, 21st century competencies in education, and CMEC’s data and research initiatives.
Barriers Facing Native Students
“Here at the conference, the top education issue that’s being faced by all of us and that I certainly bring to the table is the need to have equitable and fair funding for First Nations students in this country,” Atleo says. “That currently does not exist.”
On average, a First Nations student in a First Nations school receives $2,000 less per child for their education than non-aboriginal students, Atleo says.
“There’s also no funding for computers, no funding for recreation, there isn’t funding for teacher training, and there’s no funding for things like language retention and for culture when of course we’ve just come from 150 years of the residential school system, which has one of its sole purposes to take the language and cultural identity away from our learners,” he explains.
A big issue discussed at the conference was basic accessibility of the Internet, computers and other technology which are not readily available within aboriginal communities, says Carey Calder, director of Labour Market Development for the Native Women’s Association of Canada.
The federal government, the province and band councils are failing to do much about aboriginal students lagging behind other Canadians, especially in the on-reserve schools, according to a 2008 study written by SFU economist John Richards for the C.D. Howe Institute.
The study found that aboriginals who are young and middle-aged are more than twice as likely not to graduate from high school, and less than a third as likely to complete university.
Push for Federal Funding
Atleo is hopeful that joining forces with education ministers will help push the federal government to provide more funding.
“Provincial and territorial governments can also help by making sure that there is proper curriculum within their systems that teach the real history of First Nations, Inuit and Métis – everything from the treaties that really helped forged Canada itself which are not well understood and they’re not taught by and large in the system,” he says.
The ministers of education at the conference endorsed the CMEC strategy on aboriginal education, including plans to continue discussions with the federal government on aboriginal education issues. The CMEC forum in November will allow participants to share effective strategies to improve the situation for aboriginal students.
“We agree with Chief Atleo about the importance of working together to ensure that aboriginal youth have access to a high quality education,” says Leona Dombrowsky, Ontario minister of education, in a statement to Our Kids Media. “We are committed to helping all students in Ontario succeed and encourage the federal government to commit to full financial participation as we move forward together.”
Government Efforts to Improve Education
In 2010, both the Assembly of First Nations and Prime Minister Stephen Harper declared education a top priority in efforts to improve the lives of First Nations people.
Progress has been made, but more needs to be done, says Geneviève Guibert, spokesperson for Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC). In December, the government created a national panel on First Nation elementary and secondary education to work on developing options, including legislation, to improve the situation for elementary and secondary First Nation children who live on the reserves, according to Guibert. Moreover, the government has reached agreements in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island to work towards this goal.
In the 2008 budget, the government announced $268 million over five years, and ongoing funding of $75 million in each subsequent year, through the Education Partnerships Program and the First Nation Student Success Program, Guibert says. The 2010 budget also provided $30 million over two years to support an agreement promoting the education of First Nation students on or off reserves. Overall, INAC invests nearly $1.7 billion annually in education, including $1.4 billion for elementary and secondary education and more than $300 million for post-secondary education programs.
“With the knowledge and experience of Aboriginal leaders, the determination of provinces and territories, and the full financial participation of the federal government, we can build a Canada where all Aboriginal peoples are able to reach their full educational potential,” Diane McGifford, chair of CMEC and Manitoba’s Minister of Advanced Education and Literacy, said in a press release.
Other Top Education Issues
The CMEC conference discussed other top education issues:
- Led by Ontario minister of education Dombrowsky, the ministers held a special session on early-childhood learning and development. They committed to continue sharing knowledge on early childhood learning and development through CMEC, recognizing its importance as one of the pillars of the Learn Canada 2020 framework and the growing body of research showing its positive effect on children’s overall academic achievement.
- Education ministers reviewed a working draft of an international education marketing action plan, including a visit to China in June for the second high-level meeting with education officials, in efforts to work with the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade to attract more international students. “Provinces and territories believe international education has emerged as an integral part of Canada’s future in an increasingly knowledge-based, interconnected world,” said CMEC chair McGifford in a press release. ”We look forward to continuing our dialogue with China on how to deepen our education cooperation.”
- Representatives of the Canadian School Boards Association joined ministers to discuss priorities, including 21st-century competencies and how provinces and territories are addressing the broad range of skills that youth will need as workers and citizens in the knowledge society of the 21st century. These skills include critical thinking, information literacy, collaborative learning, and new modes of civic engagement.
- Ministers recognized the value of timely and comparable data on education in Canada and the need for sustainable, ongoing federal financial support for data collection and research.
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What do you think about the top education issues addressed by the ministers of education at the CMEC conference? How is your school addressing diversity through its curriculum, programs, policies and teachings? How can the government and schools help improve education for aboriginal students? Share your views in the Comments section below.
Watch for a Q&A with AFN national chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo and other innovators and experts as they comment on the 21st century skills required for students to be successful in a future edition of Dialogue, published in March.