The state of First Nations education in Canada is dire, says a new report that calls on government to close the “dramatic” gap in per-student funding and promotes a new generation of Aboriginal-run residential schools.
The report from the Northern Policy Institute looks specifically at education in the remote northern Ontario communities of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation.
It offer a five-point action plan to improve high school education, including improvements to an existing nation-run “residential school” system.
“The small size and sheer geographic distance separating isolated First Nations communities suggest that residential schools, in some form, will remain the most viable option for some time to come,” the report concluded.
Paul Bennett, a policy analyst and author of the report, says the spectre of church-run residential schools hangs over the prospect.
“I suspect it is part of the reason why there’s a hesitancy to get on with restoring secondary school education,” he told Yahoo Canada News.
But that shouldn’t prevent improving housing for two nation-run schools that already have students attending from distant communities: Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School in Thunder Bay and Pelican Lake First Nations High School near Sioux Lookout.
Pelican Lake has a residence to house students, while remote students at Dennis Franklin Cromarty board throughout the city.
“We’re talking about First Nations-run schools with First Nations leaders with, first and foremost, the philosophy of a safe, supportive and compassionate learning environment. It’s far different,” he said.
“We have no desire to go back to what was a horrific chapter in the history of First Nations people.”
The policy paper is a response to an Ontario coroner’s inquest released earlier this year into the deaths of seven high school students in Thunder Bay between 2000 and 2011.
The students — Jethro Anderson, 15; Reggie Bushie, 15; Robyn Harper, 18; Kyle Morriseau, 17; Paul Panacheese, 21; Curran Strang, 18; and Jordan Wabasse, 15 — were attending high school in the city from remote northern Ontario reserves. Five of them drowned, one died of alcohol poisoning and another collapsed and died from undetermined causes.
The coroner’s inquest resulted in 145 recommendations, including building high schools in all or most remote Aboriginal communities.
“I couldn’t believe that they would actually recommend that each and every tiny, little community would have a high school,” Bennett said.
“It’s not that I oppose it. It’s just that I don’t think it’s realistic.”
Instead, his report recommends immediate and “achievable” improvements.
“The inquest was very clear in finding that the accommodations were totally unsatisfactory, a contributing factor to the deaths of the seven teens and youth that died, and that something better was needed.”
His five-point action plan also calls on the federal government to close the funding gap. The nation receives $7,100 per student, compared to the $12,598 per pupil tuition rate charged by the Algoma School District schools for on-reserve students to attend their public schools.
“There’s a dramatic difference,” Bennett said.
“The most important, single change that needs to be made is there needs to be an immediate increase in funding … and it has to be allocated specifically to teaching and learning.”
Federal Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett has agreed, yet nothing has changed.
Despite the funding gap and the challenges, the nation has managed to increase graduation rates from 53.8 per cent in 2009-10 to 76 per cent last year.
The report supports construction of a student living centre at Dennis Franklin Cromarty, where students currently are boarded in residential homes.
It calls for expanded student support services for remote students making a transition to city life, a full transition to First Nations control of education and a curriculum that incorporates Indigenous knowledge and learning.
It also calls for a Race Relations Commissioner and officers in cities with sizable Aboriginal student populations.
The report is specific to the Nishnawbe Aski Nation but could easily apply to remote Indigenous communities across the country.
“It seems every week brings a new revelation and I think the federal government, to be honest, is overwhelmed by the numbers and the extent to which there are problems,” Bennett said. “It’s a long-term proposition here but there are a few things that can be done without a huge expense to make a big difference.”