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Path to a better future

Aboriginal leaders like Kevin Chief are inspiring a new generation of kids to stay in school


It’s Mad Science time for Mr. Cueto’s Grade Six class at Strathcona Elementary School in Winnipeg’s inner city, where roughly 70 percent of the students are aboriginal. Today’s subject is “wind.” A cheerful, lab-coated instructor from the popular non-profit Mad Science organization is demonstrating the phenomenon by way of air-filled green garbage bags, straws, ping-pong balls and paper-cutout wind wheels.

The children, some wearing lime-green T-shirts that say “Eco-Kids” in bright lettering, listen attentively – they’re eager to take part in the experiments. Many hands shoot up to answer his questions, and there’s only minor mayhem when it comes time to share scissors.

At the side of the classroom, watching the scene unfold with pride, and hope, is 33-year-old Kevin Chief, coordinator of the Innovative Learning Centre at the University of Winnipeg. Mr. Chief, who is Métis, grew up in a tiny house across the street from Strathcona Elementary; he knows how hard it is to beat the school-dropout odds for Native kids from tough neighbourhoods plagued by poverty, addiction and crime.

“I was lucky because I was offered a basketball scholarship, so the economic challenge was removed,” says Mr. Chief, who has a BA in justice and law and is working on an MA in education from the University of Winnipeg. Also crucial, he acknowledges, was support of the non-financial kind – coaches, academic advisers and mentors who guided him along the university path, helping him build on his successes, stay focused on his studies and become as confident academically as he was on the basketball court.

It’s that kind of intensive, life-changing support that Mr. Chief passionately wants to see extended to other young aboriginal people, and what made him say an enthusiastic “yes” when asked by University of Winnipeg President Lloyd Axworthy, in 2006, to design and lead an initiative that would reach across elementary, secondary and postsecondary school levels to give aboriginal kids a better shot at making it to university. It means offering after-school, weekend and summer-camp activities that keep elementary school kids interested in learning and exploring their world – 700 so far across the Winnipeg school system have participated in the Eco-Kids program.

And it means getting high-school students involved in both volunteer and paid employment opportunities. As counselors, they help with science experiments, conduct field trips and serve as role models for the younger kids. They also learn new skills themselves, mingle with university students doing the same type of teaching and leadership work and, through an “opportunity fund,” start saving the money they earn, in a University of Winnipeg bank account, for tuition when the time comes.

“The kids kept asking, ‘are you going to university?'” says Kylie Sais, a 17-year-old Métis student who participated in the program last summer and who is now in her final year at the University of Winnipeg high school, looking forward to attending university and eventually becoming a teacher.

Mr. Chief believes that giving young people like Kylie Sais opportunities like this, and letting them positively influence even younger kids, is the best hope for inspiring a new generation to think about university as a real possibility for themselves – giving them what today’s educators call “a tap on the shoulder” that says, in both direct and indirect ways: you too can do this when you grow up.

It may be too soon to gauge the impact of a program like Eco-Kids on the future university enrolment of the aboriginal students who participate. But Mr. Chief and his colleagues at the University of Winnipeg and across the city’s school system are busy collecting data, raising funds to keep the program going, and refining their educational and outreach approach as they go along.

They are hardly alone in their concern and commitment. A considerable number of programs are available at many of Canada’s universities, from Cape Breton University in Sydney, Nova Scotia to Malaspina University College on Vancouver Island (detailed in the 2006 report Redressing the Balance: Canadian University Programs in Support of Aboriginal Students (PDF), prepared by David Holmes for the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada).

Educators, aboriginal leaders and politicians at all levels of government are attempting to respond effectively to a truly alarming demographic and statistical reality: Canada’s aboriginal population has significantly less education than the general population, at a time when its proportion of young people is growing exponentially, especially in the western provinces and the North. New census data from 2006 shows that more than one million Canadians identify themselves as aboriginal. Between 1996 and 2006, the aboriginal population (First Nations, Métis, Inuit and other) grew by 45 percent – almost six times the growth rate of the non-aboriginal population.

Meanwhile, the 2001 census found that only 52 percent of aboriginal people in Canada had finished high school, compared with 70 percent of non-aboriginals. While 22 percent of non-aboriginal Canadians had a university degree in 2001, the figure for aboriginals was 8.9 percent. (The data on educational attainment from the 2006 census hasn’t been released yet.)

“Canada’s future and that of the aboriginal population are inextricably linked,” said Lloyd Axworthy, in his opening address to a roundtable on aboriginal education that brought together university administrators, aboriginal leaders, federal and provincial politicians and civil servants at the University of Winnipeg in November. “When one segment of the population is shut out, it’s a failure of public policy and an awful waste of human potential.”

Aboriginal youth themselves recognize that postsecondary education is key to their future. At the National First Nations Youth Summit in Winnipeg last November, 550 young people endorsed a report calling for increased educational funding and more programming at all levels of the school system in First Nations languages.

For many aboriginal youth, both on and off reserve, breaking through the cultural, economic and personal barriers to education is far from easy. The problems are complex; solving them touches on the most fundamental questions of social justice and economics. If you come from a family in which no one has ever graduated from high school or university and live on an isolated reserve with inadequate housing, unsafe water and high rates of teen pregnancy, of unemployment, of addiction and suicide, then chances are your schooling will suffer. If and when you do make it to high school or university, it will be in a much larger community, hundreds or thousands of miles away from the reserve, where you may find the culture shock overwhelming.

It’s obvious that someone in this position is going to need a great deal of social and financial support. But the demographic of “aboriginal students” can be difficult for universities to track and to serve well because this requires students to identify themselves as aboriginal; a significant number may not do so, fearing prejudice or the kind of monitoring once associated with policies detrimental to aboriginal advancement. “Last year, we had 1,575 self-declared aboriginal students, and I think you could triple that with those that won’t declare,” says Fred Shore, a professor and executive director of the office of university accessibility at the University of Manitoba.

The numbers may be difficult to precisely pinpoint, but the low educational attainment trend among aboriginal Canadians is a reality. If it continues, say recent studies including a report from the Ottawa-based Centre for the Study of Living, Canada stands to lose billions of dollars in productivity, and aboriginal people will continue to struggle with poverty and unemployment, poorer health and less prosperous communities than other Canadians.

“The educational failures sown today will be the social and economic costs reaped tomorrow – in this case, tomorrow is not a distant future,” writes Michael Mendelson, senior scholar at the Caledon Institute of Social Policy, in his 2006 report Aboriginal Peoples and Postsecondary Education in Canada (PDF).

That scenario, say aboriginal leaders and a growing number of non-aboriginal ones too, is simply unacceptable. “First Nations education is in crisis, and young people are being short-changed,” said Phil Fontaine, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, addressing the November roundtable in Winnipeg. Mr. Fontaine went on to point out that while the number of First Nations people with university degrees has been increasing slowly since the 1990s (the estimated number of aboriginal university students is now 30,000), the lack of money for education is still a major barrier.

To be sure, some aboriginal students receive grant funding to cover tuition and other educational expenses through the Post-Secondary Student Support Program of Indian and Northern Affairs. But the program can’t possibly keep up with demand: the annual increase for individual students (distributed through the bands to which they belong) has been capped at two percent annually since 1995; the program’s annual total of $270 million, observers say, is nowhere near enough to meet the demands of a rapidly growing population of young aboriginals, especially at a time when the cost of postsecondary education is rising.

Due to this federal funding shortfall, Mr. Fontaine says, 2,800 First Nations students who became eligible for university last year were unable to attend for financial reasons. This doesn’t include the growing number of non-status First Nations and Métis students who do not qualify for this targeted funding in the first place; these students must add their applications to the pool seeking loan and grant funding from the same sources as non-aboriginal students. Mr. Fontaine estimates it would cost $2 billion more over 10 years to bring aboriginal education attainment to the level of the non-aboriginal population.

In its 2005 First Nations Education Action Plan, the AFN called for the two percent cap to be lifted and a new federal funding model “matched to population growth, community needs and real cost drivers” to be developed. But the cap remains, and critics are still calling for radical change in the federal government’s strategy and priorities in aboriginal education. “It’s not fair in a country as rich as Canada that we have a significant segment of young people who can’t take advantage of educational opportunities,” argues Mr. Fontaine.

Those attending the roundtable sessions, primarily from the western provinces (although the initiative is likely to broaden to a national focus), shared the view that after years of talking and producing myriad reports, the time has come for educational institutions and governments across the country to rise to the challenge, act on the findings, share their knowledge and expertise and come up with a unified and coherent action plan to significantly improve the educational outlook for aboriginal people in all regions of the country. “A handful of bursaries here and there isn’t going to solve the problem,” observed David Chartrand, president of the Manitoba Métis Federation, sitting alongside AFN Grand Chief Fontaine at the meeting.

So what will solve the problem? There’s no shortage of people genuinely seeking solutions. The roundtable forum will continue and grow, say its organizers. It has produced a draft policy paper to guide future action. The proposals include:

  • encouraging children from the earliest grades to think about their educational futures, especially in fields that require advanced math and science skills, where aboriginal people are particularly underrepresented;
  • providing more funds to aboriginal students from public and private sources for postsecondary studies;
  • offering the kinds of supports, such as childcare and housing, that would allow more adults to successfully pursue postsecondary education;
  • creating institutions specifically for aboriginal students, such as First Nations University in Saskatchewan, as well as programs at numerous other universities designed from an aboriginal perspective; and
  • forging links with existing aboriginal educational institutions.

“Universities have changed,” says Dr. Shore of the University of Manitoba. Now, when it comes to setting up aboriginal student centres or designing programs in social work and public administration based on the needs of communities in the northern part of the province, he says, “I don’t have to convince anyone to do this.”

Ron Byrne, associate vice- president of student affairs at the Univesity of Regina, agrees. “We’ve launched a program for all faculty and staff to participate in sessions on aboriginal awareness, and recognize we have a lot to learn from aboriginal people themselves.”

Most of all, say Mr. Byrne and other administrators, universities have to start seeing community outreach as key to fostering successful educational outcomes for aboriginal people. “It’s going out and truly listening to what the community needs,” says Fran Hunt-Jinnouchi, director of the newly established office of indigenous affairs at the University of Victoria. Aboriginal education, she points out, is in her university’s strategic plan.

“My role is to provide leadership for faculty and staff and a link to First Nations communities, so that we can be more responsive to cultural needs and raise our profile,” she adds. With input from a number of First Nations communities and organizations, UVic has a provincially mandated and funded three-year action plan to improve services and programs for aboriginal students: hiring a dedicated Métis community liaison worker; offering summer orientation sessions for adult learners; creating an aboriginal map of the campus; providing exit strategies for aboriginal graduates to help them find employment and reintegrate into their home communities; and completing the indigenous student hub, First Peoples House, by the summer of 2009.

Similar initiatives are underway at postsecondary institutions across the country, but financing is tight. Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario has had dedicated Indigenous Studies programming since 1969 and now serves close to 500 self-identified aboriginal students from the undergraduate to PhD level. But it says funding from government has been static for 15 years at less than $300,000, a fixed share of monies allocated for aboriginal education from the province of Ontario.

“Additional resources are needed,” says Trent President Bonnie Patterson. “These aren’t big dollars, but we need to seed curriculum development, support doctoral students and build linkages with the aboriginal community. Young people from the North are a long way from home, and cultural advisers are terribly important.”

Dr. Patterson believes a national strategy for aboriginal education is essential. “My own view is that we need a national network of centres of excellence, which would bring together collaborative research, support integrated curriculum development, build on best practices and bring a wide pool of experience to the table.”

Today’s dramatic and rapid demographic shifts in the aboriginal population give the issue of postsecondary education for aboriginal youth its urgency. But can all the initiatives now being fashioned overcome one of the toughest barriers of all: the old wound of the residential-school system, with its association to abuse, aboriginal language loss and family disintegration that still scars many aboriginal communities and has created a deep distrust of non-aboriginal institutions?

Standing in front of the house where he was raised in northeast Winnipeg by his father, an alcoholic who died at the age of 63, Kevin Chief ponders the question before responding.

“My father grew up at a time when the laws were racist, when aboriginal people couldn’t even vote. That was a burden he carried. I don’t think he would want me to carry the same burden.”

That’s why, says Mr. Chief, he is so committed to making sure today’s generation of aboriginal youth doesn’t miss out on the education they will need to build good lives for themselves and their communities – to nurturing more young role models like Kylie Sais, so that when an 11-year-old aboriginal kid asks an older one, “Are you going to university?” the answer more and more often will be “Yes.”

University support

Pronounced Le-non-git, the word LE,NONET means “success after enduring many hardships” in the Straits Salish language. It’s the name of a $4.5-million pilot project in aboriginal education at the University of Victoria sponsored by the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation. It includes a bursary program to top up funding students may receive from other sources; peer mentoring to help orient students new to the UVic campus and to support them as they continue their studies; community internships for course credits; on-campus research apprenticeships; cultural training for staff and faculty; and continued engagement with the First Nations communities of Vancouver Island.


An initiative begun in 1998 by the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation (and now funded through a wide variety of sources, including corporate, non-profit and government), ArtsSmarts programming has been a documented success at 15 off-reserve and three on-reserve elementary and secondary schools, primarily in the western provinces, as well as in Nunavut and Newfoundland and Labrador. Research suggests an array of benefits for students participating in arts projects that encourage them to explore their own cultures through a wide variety of activities: meeting artists in their communities, making films or creating stories, building traditional musical instruments or sewing quilts, to name just a few. Teachers report behavioral improvements, heightened motivation and the discovery of hidden talents among many of the participants.

Business smarts

Funded by former prime minister Paul Martin, 15 aboriginal students at Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School in Thunder Bay, Ontario are learning how to become successful entrepreneurs. The pilot course aimed at Grade 11 and 12 students and headed by an aboriginal teacher includes funding for students to start their own businesses – from selling jewellery to starting a dog-biscuit bakery. It aims to motivate aboriginal young people to complete high school and think about pursuing careers in business. Mr. Martin (who attended the round table in Winnipeg) hopes to expand the program to Grades 9 and 10 and to offer it at other high schools across the country.

Moira Farr
Moira Farr is a contract instructor at Carleton University as well as a freelance writer and editor.
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