A Colonial Burden: Aboriginal Educational Reform in Canada

The next Canadian federal election is scheduled for this coming October. While that date may seem far away, we are nearing a new campaign season which is sure to generate much interest and debate. One of the key issues entering the next election will surely be Aboriginal relations and the growing gap that exists between First Nations and the rest of Canada. The gap can be viewed in terms of financial and health related issues, as well as education of youth in particular. Indeed, First Nations communities currently face multiple crises. In light of this, today’s post focuses specifically on the push in Canada for Aboriginal educational reform.

First Nations currently represent roughly sixty-one per cent of Canada’s Aboriginal population, which includes Inuit and Métis. This accounts for just over 900,000 people, of which sixty per cent live off reserves in cities and towns across Canada. The remaining forty per cent (360,000) live on reserve. There are more than 2,300 reserves whose population range from a few hundred people to more than ten thousand. When it comes to education in particular, First Nations have a significantly higher dropout rate than do other Canadian citizens. On average, six out of ten First Nations living on reserve are high school dropouts. Of that ten, three more are dropouts living off reserve. When compared to the one-in-ten dropout rate of non-Indigenous Canadians, these numbers seem even more staggering. If you require more evidence of the current and ongoing epidemic of Aboriginal education in Canada, consider that a First Nations youth living on reserve is more likely to end up in jail than to graduate high school.

Here is The Globe and Mail video from which these stats were taken. The video explores the education crisis as well as issues related to First Nations finance and health care:

Since Aboriginal education continues to be a topic of heated discussion in Canada, a host of political and cultural concerns have sparked research and scholarship into regions, peoples and issues that often emerge to engulf the public eye. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has made Aboriginal education reform a top priority during his current eight-year tenure. He is amongst those who have suggested that real threats towards the well-being of Aboriginal youth exist in Canada, and he has made attempts to rectify the national scars left by the history of residential schools and the colonial mistreatment of Indigenous peoples.

Residential schooling in territories now referred to as Canada can be traced back as early as the seventeenth century when Christian missionaries ran boarding schools in parts of what are now Ontario, the Prairies and British Columbia. In 1883, the Department of Indian Affairs established the first state-sponsored industrial schools as a means of meeting treaty obligations signed by the Dominion government in the 1870s. Three schools were created in what are now Alberta and Saskatchewan, each having derived specifically from a constitutional responsibility to provide schooling for First Nations groups. Modeled in part from American examples, these three schools and others that followed, coexisted in Canada with a number of small missionary boarding schools. In 1923, the Department of Indian Affairs amalgamated state-sponsored industrial and boarding schools into the single category of residential schools that we recognize today. That same decade marked the peak of the Canadian residential school system, totalling eighty institutions at its height. By the 1940s the system was on the decline, and as a result of persistent deficiencies and increasing opposition from Aboriginal groups Ottawa decided in 1969 to terminate the remainder of existing state-sponsored residential schools.

When considering issues in the current debate over Aboriginal education reform, we must remember that Canada’s political system is descendent from a British model of governance that was established through the formation of the Dominion of Canada at Confederation in 1867. Canada’s colonial past has a long and well-document history, especially as it relates to residential school. From Confederation through to the 1930s and 1940s, successive Canadian governments had zero interest in the educational health of First Nations. Despite the breadth of industrial and missionary boarding schools in Canada, Aboriginal education was very much a cursory concern of the Canadian government. Consider the words of our first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, who said:

secular education is a good thing among white men but among Indians the first object is to make them better men, and, if possible, good Christian men by applying proper moral restraints …

These remarks formed the backbone of a policy towards First Nations education that emerged in the 1880s. It was a policy derived specifically from a series of treaties signed by the Dominion of Canada government during the 1870s with First Nations located in northwestern Ontario and the Prairies, but was also the result of frugality and racist ideology on the part of policy makers then in power. Obliged to support ‘Indians’ for whom it had a constitutional responsibility, the Dominion government viewed First Nations as an annoyance and cared little for their individual and collective educational well-being.

Unfortunately, many of the current crises facing First Nations in Canada – educational and otherwise – are pandemic of this colonial past. Accordingly, all current discourse on Aboriginal education reform must be contextualized against historic interactions and agreements between First Nations and European settlers. Educational negotiations between the Canadian government and the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) are particularly burdened by pre-existing deficiencies in the cultural treatment and legal rights of Aboriginal peoples who sustained livelihoods in Canada prior to European arrival. If Aboriginal educational reform in Canada is to shape meaningful and lasting change for First Nations youth, we must therefore realize that important and effective decisions will today be reached only when all concerned feel they have had an opportunity to express their points of view and help form a consensus. 

Recent changes in Aboriginal governance and activism have invigorated widespread public interest in issues concerning the political and cultural well-being of First Nations. The conversation is underway, but it must continue to grow in order to begin to change many of the issues that still persist.