Wednesday, September 24, 2008


Canada’s education ministers emerged from two days of meetings Tuesday, promising continued work on a hodgepodge of issues, including lagging aboriginal education.

Indigenous Canadians (pictured here) marched in the street of Edmonton, Canada to more dramatically highlight what they say is an education system that isn't working for them or their children.

Earlier this month First Nations demonstrators marched to the Manitoba Legislature to protest the lack of funding for First Nations elementary and high schools and post secondary students.

Further, on the same day that Prime Minister Stephen Harper made a campaign stop in Winnipeg, another group of aboriginals rallied in front of the city's Indian Affairs office for better education funding.

The other day Assembly of First Nations national Chief Phil Fontaine asked,"There's been $22-billion expended on the Afghan war, and so what is there for first nations people?"

In fact, First Nations issues have become totally invisible in this years federal election, with all the major parties failing to address the important issues that face the people.

Fontaine said the absence of any discussion of native issues in the campaign for the Oct. 14 election is a disservice to all Canadians, and urged the political parties to address those issues in their platforms.

"First nations poverty is the single most important social justice issue in the country and we would expect that each of the parties would do the responsible thing, and that is to engage Canadians," he said.

There are 27,000 native children in state care, 40 communities without schools, 100 communities under boil-water advisories and serious concerns about housing and health care for people living on reserves, Fontaine said.

On September 29 the Assembly of First Nations is calling for a National Day of Political Action in First Nation communities across the country. On this day all First Nation communities are encouraged to participate in a variety of political activities such as engaging with their citizens and local candidates, host community meetings and town halls, discuss platforms with each other, and other political events so that First Nation citizens can make an informed choice on October 14.

Anishinabek Nation leaders participating that day will be seeking commitments and support for five key priorities:
1. Eliminating poverty through implementation of the Anishinabek Nation
Economic Blueprint and enhancing First Nations economic capacity;
2. Enhancing Education and Training opportunities to enable Anishinabek
youth to enter the skilled workforce;
3. A renewed focus on the Treaties and Treaty Implementation, including
provisions for resource revenue-sharing;
4. Adopting and Implementing the United Nations Declaration on the
Rights of Indigenous Peoples;
5. Commitment to protecting and proliferating First Nations languages -
including funding of an Anishinabek Language Immersion Institute.

As the marchers today in Edmonton are saying education must be near the top of any list of priorities of First Nation issues.

The results of a 2003 survey (the latest available) on literacy rates of aboriginal people were alarming.

About 72 per cent of urban Manitoban adult first nations scored below the benchmark level three literacy level, as did 70 per cent of first nations in urban Saskatchewan.

Amongst non-aboriginals, the comparable numbers are 44 and 37 per cent.

"It (adult literacy) is at a crisis level," Paul Michel, director of the First Nations Center at the University of Northern British Columbia in Prince George, told the Vancouver Sun.

Michel estimates that up to 75 per cent of his region's adult aboriginal population would need literacy upgrading before they could even think about applying to a university.

Dropout rates for aboriginal students at British Colombia high schools are "extremely high," said Michel, and those who stay in school often aren't encouraged to take academic-stream classes.

But high-school dropout rates and underemployment are often just the symptoms of deeper problems in aboriginal communities.

One major hurdle to improving literacy is the tainted relationship between aboriginal people and Western education due to colonialism and abuse.

"It's not possible to underestimate the negative effect of the residential school experience," said Elizabeth Wilson, who's worked for 20 years as an educational consultant in the Pacific Northwest.

"[Aboriginal children] were put into situations that were basically devastating and that was their first time with schooling," said. "And it wasn't that many generations ago. So it's not surprising that schooling-type situations have not been easy for aboriginal people."

In residential schools, students were often forbidden to speak their native language and discouraged from maintaining their culture.

Wilson said this legacy has often translated into a feeling that when students learns English, they are simultaneously losing something of their aboriginal language and traditions.

Michel says the best way to teach basic skills to aboriginal learners is to make lessons resonate with their everyday lives.

"If they're hunting, then you've got all the hunting words and you write about that," he said. "So when you're teaching literacy, you're not teaching about the 14th floor in downtown Toronto with a three-piece business suit -- words that really don't have any relevance within their life."

At that Winnipeg rally a few weeks ago Chief Terrance Nelson, with the Roseau River First Nation, said the next government needs to put education first. Right now, he said parents on reserves have to pay much more for their children's education than other Canadian residents.

Instead of paying $70,000 to keep one young person in jail, Nelson said the government should be investing that money in ensuring every young person can go to a well-funded school.

The government boasts about spending $10 billion on aboriginal programs but very little of that money actually trickles down to the people who need it, he said.

"It's sure as hell not getting to us," Nelson told the rally. "It's not getting to the young people. What we're saying is we need to make sure this becomes an election issue."

The following is from the Edmonton (Canada) Sun.

First Nations take to city streets over education system 'in crisis'

Hundreds of First Nations people took to the streets today to protest what National Chief Phil Fontaine called an education system “in crisis.”

“We’re here to protest the conditions in First Nations and the discrepancies in funding in First Nations as opposed to non-First Nations,” said Treaty 6 Grand Chief Wayne Moonias, who is from Hobbema.

“We’re severely underfunded and as a result there’s a lot of negative impacts.”

Those impacts, he added, include teachers who are paid up to $25,000 less annually than their colleagues working for the province.

He said retaining quality teachers - nine left his home town of Hobbema over the summer - and offering “quality programs,” is a constant challenge.

Other problems include a lower standard of education, leaving students behind those in public schools.

“Any mainstream child, they’re at least three to five years behind those children just because of poor education,” said protester Jacqueline Fayant, shortly before the crowd - waving banners and beating drums - marched from Churchill Square to Canada Place.

Fontaine, who once again expressed his disappointment with most First Nations issues being left off campaign platforms in the federal election, said the lack of proper funding directly affects students on reserves.

“We have 40 communities without education facilities, without schools. There’s another 80 with schools in terrible state of disrepair, so it compromises our kids,” he said. “Our kids deserve better.

“There’s a huge disparity between what public schools receive from provincial governments and what First Nations schools receive; it’s at least $2,000 on the average (per year) per student.”

Fontaine said much of the funding woes stem from a cap imposed in 1996 that limits funding increases to core services to two per cent per year.

Many present said that is not keeping pace with the rising cost of living and does not take into account the booming First Nations population.