Better Aboriginal Education

By Reuel S Amdur

In the Globe and Mail of February 5, former Prime Minister Paul Martin, citing an Aboriginal school drop out rate of close to 50%, identifies education as the key to betterment for Natives. While he is right that education is very important, let’s not forget an old Latin saying that translates, “First to live, then to philosophize.” The first need is for the basics: food, shelter, and clothing. Then comes education. Consideration of the basics will have to wait for another day, because here we will reflect on Martin’s priority, education.

Education is important for Aboriginals, both young and adult. According to Statistics Canada, a very large percentage of Fist Nations people are functioning at a level of literacy that is inadequate. Meal preparation is also a problem, with high levels of obesity, especially in women, and diabetes. But let’s turn first to youth.

One important factor in education is student self-esteem. For First Nations youngsters, relevant education should include education about their heritage. Textbooks that teach that Columbus discovered America are not good enough, especially since Métis pioneer historian Olive Dickason produced her ground-breaking Canada’s First Nations. Where Aboriginal children are in school with other Canadians, this part of the curriculum needs to be shared generally, as self-esteem grows when an appreciation of one’s background is shared by others. Yet, because the present-day Aboriginal experience is not the same in urban centres and on the reserves or in other remote areas, consideration needs to be given separately to reserves.

On the reserves, education suffers from instability of teaching staff and lack of adequate backup. Schools are often inadequate structures and school supplies too limited. In the latter two cases, the obvious answer is adequacy. You can’t say that in any other way. The government needs to cough up.

When it comes to teachers, pay must be highly competitive, and contracts for, say, three years, with bonuses for contract completion and renewal. Aboriginal teachers should be encouraged to come, and educational opportunities for First Nations students to become teachers should be expanded. Students in training as teachers in university should be able to choose a student teaching experience on a reserve, both Native students and others especially interested. Provision for vacation back to urban centres should be part of the package. Both for teachers and students classroom conditions need to be favourable.

Class size should be manageable. Local people need to be employed as teacher aides, with in-service training. Such utilization of local people as a dual advantage. As well as improving the class situation, it also helps to build a strong link with the community. Other means need to be taken to insure that the community sees the school as “theirs” and as valued.

As part of heritage-promotion, studying the local native language is useful, something perhaps more difficult in an urban setting because of the diversity of native languages.

One important gap in reserve schools is the shortage of auxiliary professionals such as social workers and psychologists. Provision for visits by these professionals is important, with availability of long-distance consultation on an ongoing basis.

Addressing once again the issue of obesity and diabetes, a good home economics course is important. In this context, it could be helpful to make use of the Aboriginal cooking star David Wolfman and his program participant Dr. Judy New, a First Nations nutritionist. They already do visits to promote better nutrition, but their resources should be radically increased, to enable their staff to go across Canada, to visit reserves, Friendship Centres, and health centres in urban areas.

Focusing once more on self-esteem (as well as on food), the school might include hunting and gathering activities.Because many people move to urban areas, trips to an urban area are important, to help youngsters understand how they can fit in in an urban setting, visiting Friendship Centres and employment help programs. Too many First Nations young people instead end up in shelters and on the street.

In urban centres, First Nations youth with difficulties share the same problems faced by other youth. Services such as special education, psychology, and social work are the first to be cut at budget time. Wrong! As well, the need for teacher aides to help out in classes is not being adequately met. Where there are just a few Native kids in a school, a buddy system might make them fit in more readily.

Because of the inadequate education that many First Nations adults have experienced, adult programs are important, both in public and separate systems and in places such as Friendship Centres and other agencies that are Fist Nations-friendly. Aboriginal history, literacy and numeracy, and nutrition are prime candidates as topics. To encourage participation, child care is needed. A meal could accompany the program, something prepared in cooking class.

A solid education for Aboriginal young people is important not just for the Aboriginal community. It is vital for the Canadian population as a whole. The First Nations population is the most rapidly growing segment of Canadian society, and the Canadian population is aging at an alarming rate. There is a desperate need for young people to fill the jobs that the country requires, and who else will fill them? Aboriginal Canadians are the country’s most valuable unexploited resource.

Undoubtedly, there are other things that I have left out, and of course we’re talking big bucks, but, as teachers have long argued, if you think education is expensive, try ignorance.