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Talking to Native Teens about School

What First Nations kids say keeps them going, and what pulls them away. Second in a series.

Jacqueline Windh 27 Jul 2010TheTyee.ca

Jacqueline Windh is a Tofino writer and photographer, and author of  The Wild Edge: Clayoquot, Long Beach and Barkley Sound and co-author of First Nations and the Pacific Northwest: Change and Tradition (with Alfred Hendricks). This series was made possible by the generosity of those who gave to The Tyee Reporting Fellowships Funds. To find out more about this way to fund excellent, in-depth work by independent journalists, click here.

[Editor's note: This article is second in a six-part series on Native youth speaking out about their challenges and dreams. The 14 young people interviewed for this series are introduced in part one.]

Ken Watts feels his community is in good hands. He looks forward to the time when today's young people become his community's leaders. "Just because some of them are having problems now, doesn't mean that they aren't going be successful, or that they aren't going to be good leaders some day."

Watts should know. A member of Port Alberni's Tseshaht First Nation, with a BA and a full-time job at the West Coast Vancouver Island Aquatic Management Board, he is an influential provincial leader through his role as male youth representative of the B.C. Assembly of First Nations.

Yet a decade ago, Watts was one of those youth who were, as he puts it, having problems. "I was kicked out of Grade 11," he says, "not for drugs or anything, just for skipping classes."

Watts realized that he did want to finish high school. Fortunately for him, Port Alberni's alterNative school Vast Learning Opportunities Centre provided night courses that allowed him to make up his missing classes. He graduated, on time.

"I honestly don't know what I would have done without that program. Maybe I would have gone back and finished high school later," he says. But then his voice trails off. "But maybe I never would have gone back..."

Watts, now 27, beat the odds. Until recently, Alberni School District had one of the lowest gradation rates for aboriginal kids in the province. He not only finished school, but went on to complete his BA at Malaspina University College (now Vancouver Island University). But even the best of programs can succeed only if there is a desire from those that they reach out to.

"My dad made me realize how important an education is," says Watts. He believes that today, a formal education is more important than ever. "In the past you could work in the trades, as a labourer. But today, even most of those jobs require a level of formal education."

Watts's father was somewhat of an exception to his generation, having finished high school and three years of engineering at university as well. His father's values spurred him to seize the opportunity to complete his high school courses at night and to go on to post-secondary education. But many aboriginal teens do not have this type of parental role-modelling.

The actual statistics about high school completion vary between surveys: for western Canada in 2001, approximately 50 per cent of the aboriginal population 15 or over and not attending school had received their high school diploma -- compared to nearly 70 per cent of the general population.

Parents help kids succeed

With something like half of aboriginal adults not having completed high school, many teens are left without direct parental role-modelling of formal education. But even parents who have not completed high school themselves play a large role in influencing their children's success.

One of the main reasons for missing school, the Squamish kids tell me, is simply that "We're teenagers. Sometimes we sleep in, or just forget to go."

Sarah, 18, who has graduated from high school, says, "It's thanks to my parents. They came downstairs and woke me up every day. I'm grateful for that."

Ralphie, 16, agrees, crediting her good attendance at school to her aunt who gets her up in the morning. LanLan nods. "I'm glad for that too, my parents waking me up. They care that I'm going to school. I'm almost done, and they're proud."

I can't help but see the irony in their words, as we sit in a pizza joint on Vancouver's North Shore. In the surrounding affluent neighbourhoods, parental support for many kids' schooling comes in the form of help with reading and enrichment activities before many children even start school. Such kids are also driven to extracurricular activities, sent on school excursions, and given access to subject-specific private tutors. But these reserve kids -- themselves a select group, the ones who are still in school -- are grateful to have parents who simply wake them up and remind them it's a school day.

Parents' attention to school days is not an issue only for the city kids. On one of my visits with Belinda, 17, in Port Alberni, she told me, "My mom encourages me to go; she wakes me up in the morning." But Belinda's mom had been away that week, so Belinda just hung out on the couch. "I missed four of the five days."

Ken Watts feels that communities, and specifically parents, are becoming increasingly supportive of formal education for their children.

"From a traditional First Nations perspective, we have a different way of education. Being in the community, and sitting with the elders, that is education itself. The formal way is still a bit foreign to some of our people."

He notes the negative attitude the residential school system created in many older Native people. Yet he also sees how far things have progressed since those days.

It is clear from all 14 of the kids that I spoke to -- even the two who are not currently in school -- that they considered finishing high school to be important. They understand that it affects their employment opportunities.

And these kids have plans. Sarsar and Joan want to work in early childhood education; Vanessa wants to start an art café; Monica is inspired by a friend who has gone to law school; and Patrick would like to become a mechanic or start a tourism business.

These kids want to finish school. But even those with good family support find many other challenges to staying in school.

Is poverty an issue?

I ask the Squamish youth, who all live on the Mission Reserve in North Vancouver, if they feel affected by poverty. They unanimously say no. However, as our conversation proceeds, I am surprised to find how many of them work while studying full-time -- not for spending money, but to help support their family.

"I don't really help financially," Bud, 17, starts to say, but then he catches himself. "But sometimes I pass my parents some money to help them out. I help them when they're short, and they help me when I'm short."

"Ever since I was 10, I helped out by working as a babysitter, helping to put food on the table," says LanLan with pride. "I worked at Burger King last year for spring break, and they asked me to stay on. So I just did five hours after school, so I wouldn't be too tired, four to five days a week."

And working such hours does affect schooling, Bud notes. "Last school year I was working so many midnight shifts, that's why I missed so many classes. That affected my grades. I failed some classes and have to repeat them."

Poverty has other spin-down effects. Patrick, 17, comes from remote Hot Springs Village, accessible by a long boat ride up the open coast from Tofino. He moved to Port Alberni to do grade eight, but had to drop out partway through the year to return home to care for his father, who had been in an accident. He continued several years of home schooling in his village, then moved back to Port Alberni to finish high school.

"I was going to go to grade 11 there, but I was stuck for a place to stay. I stayed at my cousins' for a while, but then they got kicked out." That was two years ago. Since then, with not much to do, Pat's got into a cycle of smoking and boozing and getting into trouble. "My habits are getting the best of me."

Dealing with bullies

Bullying at schools is also an issue that came up for some of the youth. While the Squamish kids, who attend public schools in North Van, did not report to me any problems with bullying or racism, several of the kids from the smaller communities did. And, surprising to me, most of the bullying they've experienced was not related to racism, but came from within their own cultural groups.

Becky, from Opitsaht, attended public high school in Port Alberni. She left after grade nine because of other students who were threatening her; she was lucky to be able to transfer to an alterNative school and continue her education. Alanda, from Tofino, attended high school in Ucluelet. She saw bullying there both as a racist issue and within her own cultural group. And Belinda, from Port Alberni, missed one of her appointments with me because of a police interview after she was threatened by other Native girls.

I asked Gisele Martin, 31, for her perspective on this. She works with Native children and youth in Tofino-Ucluelet, and as a young Nuu-chah-nulth person she passed through the public school system here not so long ago. She suspects that there is a lot of violence in some of the children's families, as well as between families. "And that affects kids' behaviour, causes them to be acting out and bullying."

Martin, commenting on the fact that so few of the kids I've interviewed had mentioned racism as an issue, wondered if "maybe you just don't notice the racism as much, if your own cultural group already has issues."

Her feelings are echoed by Squamish youth worker Latashkinem Roberts, who notes about his kids: "Their worlds are still really small -- they think they don't experience racism. Our kids are still living on our reserves, and spending all their time within our community." Roberts recalls working at another Vancouver school, where the vice principal used to refer to the Native children as "mutts."

"There is racism," he says. "They just don't see it yet."

Substance abuse is another issue that ties in with school performance. Drinking and smoking pot may get kids kicked out from school. And, once kicked out, as in Pat's case, their drinking and smoking often just gets heavier. Several of the kids that I spoke with acknowledged that they have addictions to pot and alcohol that interfere with their motivation and their schooling. We will hear more about what they have to say in the next article in this series.

Tomorrow: Alcohol, drugs and clear heads.  [Tyee]

Read more: Indigenous, Education

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