[Editor's note: Young Canadians of First Nation, Metis or Inuit heritage face the bleakest outlook for employment, addiction and the risk of incarceration of any demographic in the country. A better education could change that. In this new Tyee Solutions Society Series, reporter Katie Hyslop looks at some inspiring models for doing things differently; what society's failure to help our Aboriginal youth learn is costing the rest of us; and how the federal and provincial governments might better spend Aboriginal education dollars.
For more on how this issue affects British Columbia's interior, catch the series "Nation Education Beyond the Three Rs," co-produced by Katie Hyslop, running all this week on CBC Radio's Daybreak North.]
Only five per cent of British Columbia's population has First Nation or Metis ancestry. But find yourself on Vancouver's notorious East Hastings strip, and you could be forgiven for thinking the ratio was much higher.
The neighbourhood is no reflection of British Columbia's entire Aboriginal population, nor is it where most live. What the disproportionately high First Nations and Metis population in the Downtown Eastside does illustrate, tragically, is the nightmare consequences of a singular social and political failure.
The historic cultural repression of residential schools, and a public school curriculum that ignores Aboriginal existence in Canada, have created generations of spiritually and financially impoverished individuals, bruised by a system indifferent to their needs, who often turn to addiction, crime or begging to survive.
More First Nations and Metis people live in British Columbia than any other province, and many are young. Just over one in 10 students going back to school this month in B.C. identify themselves as Aboriginal.
Yet for decades, their chances of emerging from Grade 12 with a diploma have been less than 50-50.
The half who fail struggle to become self-supporting, let alone contributing members of the economy. For the rest of the taxpaying public, they represent millions, potentially billions of dollars in foregone labour and never-to-be innovations, while adding to the cost of healthcare, unemployment benefits, policing, and incarceration.
More education is intimately tied to higher income and a greater contribution to society as a whole. Failing to educate Aboriginal children, in other words, isn't just holding back those kids; it's holding back British Columbia as a whole.
Sadly, little of this is new. Despite pumping money into studies, curriculum changes and Aboriginal Enhancement Agreements, the B.C. Ministry of Education has failed to move Aboriginal kids as a group any closer to the provincial graduation rate of 80 per cent.
Another 10,000 B.C. students are educated under the federal government's jurisdiction. They do no better, according to Aboriginal education advocates (no one currently tracks high school graduation rates from reserve schools, although Ottawa proposes to begin doing so next year). That's despite 20 years of big-sounding talk from the government.
In the wake of a standoff between members of the Mohawk nation in Quebec and the town of Oka -- and later the Canadian Armed Forces -- Ottawa struck a Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. Its 1996 report recommended Aboriginal-controlled education on reserves. Fifteen years later, most Metis and First Nations kids still attend schools run by the federal or provincial governments.
Here in British Columbia, a First Nations Education Steering Committee (FNESC) has pushed for more Aboriginal content in the public curriculum. FNESC President Tyrone McNeil gives the province credit for supporting its efforts, culminating in the creation of 'First Peoples-10', -11 and –12: alternatives to traditional English courses that focus on Aboriginal literature. But not enough schools offer the course, and McNeil believes teachers need to be educated about Aboriginals, too.
"Most professional teachers don't know who First Nations are," McNeil told The Tyee Solutions Society. "That lack of knowing leads to an indifference and a bias that extends into low expectations for First Nations students.
"They simply don't expect our kids to pass or do well," McNeil believes. "So every time one of our kids puts up their hand or seeks attention in a classroom, too often they're disregarded. The teacher feels, 'Well, that student's going to fail anyway, so I'm going to pay attention to those kids that are likely to succeed.'"
Glen Hansman, second vice president of the B.C. Teachers Federation, admits there's a knowledge gap for the public system teachers when it comes to Aboriginal education. But he denies that teachers commonly discriminate against Aboriginal students.
"I don't think it's true across the board. Is it a phenomenon that occurs? Probably. Is it something that needs to be addressed? Absolutely," he said.
But Hansman says teachers and students rely on the Ministry of Education to provide resources and curriculum that would close that gap -- and so far the ministry isn't stepping up. "Teachers would welcome more opportunities for in-service [training] around Aboriginal education," he says.
"It would be great if teachers had at their disposal the resources, the learning outcomes and the curriculum, and the professional development available so they could be giving representative examples from [kindergarten] all the way through 12," Hansman argues, "instead of just talking about the Haida in Grade 4 and then it disappears.
"There are teachers who do that sort of work, but it's not as widespread as we would like, and that is because, in part, the resources aren't there. It's also because the leadership from the province and school districts isn't necessarily there."
Underinvesting in Aboriginal productivity
It's a lack of investment that could be costing British Columbians dearly in both obvious and more subtle ways.
On a national scale, the Centre for the Study of Living Standards estimates that Canada would be more than $54 billion richer in 2026, if by then Aboriginal education matched the level of non-Aboriginals in 2001. The boost would come from $36.5 billion in increased economic output, $3.5 billion of tax revenue and $14.2 billion saved in social spending.
To give that some perspective, the federal deficit in 2010-2011 was only $36.2 billion.
With Canada's overall birthrate barely at replacement levels, and births among First Nation and Metis families running at 1.5 times those among non-Aboriginals, the economy can ill afford to forego the potential of our population's fastest growing community.
But there are more altruistic reasons to desire more successful Aboriginal learning. Over half of the children currently in government care in this province are Aboriginal. The primary reason is neglect. They and their siblings and cousins are overrepresented in the youth justice system, as well as in the statistics for childhood obesity, malnutrition and diabetes.
There is little doubt that overwhelming poverty has contributed to low Aboriginal grades. But poverty doesn't just affect education; education can affect poverty. A more educated population is a wealthier one. The gap between wages earned by Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in B.C. decreases with higher education.
Right to teach without the means
Last year, after much delay, Canada finally signed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous people. In doing so, the federal government affirmed that indigenous peoples have "the right to establish and control their educational systems and institutions providing education in their own languages, in a manner appropriate to their cultural methods of teaching and learning."
So far, only the Mi'kmaq of Nova Scotia and British Columbia's First Nations have secured that right in negotiation with federal and provincial governments. In 2006, McNeil's First Nations Education Steering Committee, the Government of Canada and Province of British Columbia signed agreements recognizing First Nations' jurisdiction over K-12 education on reserve. That authority includes qualifying students to move on to post-secondary education, establishing teacher training and certification standards, and developing a system to certify First Nations schools.
But turning that 2006 agreement into funding has frustrated the Steering Committe since. As previously reported in The Tyee, the organization thought it was close to an agreement last fall. But the federal Department of Aboriginal and Northern Affairs instead unveiled a three-part ultimatum. The Steering Committee's plans could take a funding cut; receive more funding but cede some jurisdiction back to the government; or continue to negotiate knowing that government would claw back from its financial support an amount equal to any funds that First Nations raised for education on their own. Meanwhile, Ottawa announced it would cut funding for internet connectivity for reserve schools.
In an email to The Tyee Solutions Society, Aboriginal Affairs Spokesperson Geneviève Guibert wrote: "Government sees taking First Nations own-source funding into account as an equal partnership with government for funding education." But FNESC maintains that funding for reserve schools is already 25 per cent lower than for off-reserve public education, and Ottawa's claw-back will not help close the gap.
Public versus private
McNeil's goal is to make First Nations schools better than public ones. After all, he says, why emulate a system that has failed their children? But not every Aboriginal child lives on a reserve. Most live in urban areas and attend public schools.
Of the province's 60 school districts, 52 have so far signed 'Enhancement' agreements with local Aboriginal representatives and the Ministry of Education. These let educators and Aboriginal communities collaborate to set goals and share decisions about Aboriginal education. But while some districts follow through on their commitments, the ministry doesn't discipline those that aren't so energetic.
"Some of the enhancement agreements are not doing very much, and some are doing excellent," says Paul Michel, director of First Nations Studies at the University of Northern British Columbia. "The ones that are doing excellent are the ones that are actually partnering up with Aboriginal leaders, so they have a real strong sense of Aboriginal traditions and they're respecting the wishes of the communities. They're doing really well."
Michel's sister Kathryn managed to eke out an education in the public system before there were enhancement agreements. But she hated her experience as the only Aboriginal kid in her class so much, that later she co-founded Secwepemc-run Chief Atahm Immersion School on the Adams Lake Reserve.
She now believes it offers the best model for Aboriginal learning. "I don't believe a Secwepemc child can be educated in the public schools as they are today," Michel said.
Michel believes that holds true even for First Nations youth living off reserve. "I think it would be really hard [for such students] to connect to who they are, to their land and their language, when they live far away," she explains. "And I think the best thing that could happen is for these children to find out that there are communities still speaking the language, and they have a very large land base, and they have a culture."
Her husband, and Chief Atahm principal, Robert Matthew disagrees. While he swears by the Chief Atahm model, Matthew spent his first 15 years as a teacher and administrator in the public system, where he did see some kids succeed. But it didn't come without hard work from parents, teachers, and students.
"The public school is a demand-request system," he says. "You have to demand a quality education right from day one, [from when] your kid's five years old until they're 18 and in Grade 12.
"You can't go in there angry at teachers and blaming them for the residential schools and all the wrongs of the last hundred years, but you do have to go in there and make sure that teachers realize you want a quality education for [your] children, and you're requesting it and demanding it consistently from day one. If you don't do that, you're sunk."
One public school district is putting hard work into responding to that request from its parents on Haida Gwaii, where three-quarters of students identify as Haida. The next instalment in this special Tyee Solutions Society series, running next Tuesday, will travel to Masset to see how that work is reaching out to Haida children, elders and culture -- and how the larger Haida community has received its efforts.