Ken Clement has a Vision for Helping Vancouver’s Aboriginal Students

By Morgan O’Neal

The slate is put together in the back room, behind closed doors, after discussion and debate results in a consensus of dutiful mutual compromise so as to appear publicly in agreement on major campaign issues. If this process reminds us of direct participatory democracy, it is because Canada has a long tradition of participatory governance, one especially enshrined in the history of our First Nations. In studies of the standard procedures and principles of aboriginal governance, it is shown that the operative rules were consensus and participation. In the back room, maneuvering for people to line up on a Vision “slate,” Ken Clement apparently had some good luck. Good things sometimes happen to good people. Wild Wester Sharron Gregson topped the school board polls, and Ken Clement squeaked ahead of his nearest rival into the last slot on the ballot six votes.

Clement is a survivor. At the tender age of five or six, he was dragged kicking and screaming off to residential school for “nine f—ing years,” a virtual prison where his every action was met with a disproportionate ecclesiastical reaction from habited nuns known to Native students as “penguins.” An infinite number of lines they must have written on the blackboard slate: “I will not call the nuns a penguin, for if I do I won’t go to heaven.” Ken’s mother encouraged him to continue his education, and before he knew what hit him he had (in the relative freedom of the public school system) completed Grade 12 in Nelson and earned himself a degree in social work at UBC. He was well ahead of his time in these achievements and doesn’t remember running into many, if any, other indigenous Brothers and Sisters, let alone an aboriginal faculty member who could have intervened as a scholarly mentor.

First Nations People, then as now, make up about three percent of Canada’s population but a tragic twenty percent of prison inmates. They are also statistically prominent in other underclass populations such as the homeless, the unemployed, the drug addicted, and (most dishearteningly) women missing, murdered, or made vulnerable by the tragedy of domestic violence and the struggle to make ends meet on the street through work in the sex trade. As a member of the Ktunaxa First Nation and former residential school student and survivor, Clement’s personal experience informs how he sees his role as an activist. “It gives me an understanding of how we can overcome challenges, while at the same time respecting our differences within a dominant society.” Clement couldn’t recall any other First Nation politician elected to a civic position in Vancouver in recent history, but if elected to the School Board, he told the First Nations Drum he wants students to be introduced to the history of the First Nations in Canada. Such courses in history would only begin to try and rebuild the knowledge once passed down from generation to generation through oral tradition in Native communities before being aggressively interrupted by the dogma of Residential Schools.

His primary goal will be to get the voices of aboriginal students and parents heard and to incorporate understanding of cultural differences into the school system. “It’s a long journey in terms of educating people on both sides of the fence,” he said, noting that the rates of success for aboriginal graduates are abysmal. The most recent study by the Vancouver School Board shows that for children in Grade 4, the percentage of aboriginal children failing to meet expectations in reading, writing, and numeracy is double that of the general population. According to that same report, figures regarding children between grades 8 and 12 “clearly state that aboriginal students began to decline in progress upon entering Grade 8 . . . [and] the gap between aboriginal and non-aboriginal students increases as students progress through Grade 8 to Grade 12.” This dismal diagnosis threatens young aboriginals in the same educational “hospitals” meant to cure illiteracy and prevent the prognosis of failure after failure from becoming a reality. This self-fulfilling prophecy is the dark, ever-darkening legacy of the annihilation of indigenous cultural bonds and basics, the suppression of Native languages and traditions, and the literal destruction of aboriginal families and communities. Clement has pledged to work for increased support for vulnerable youth, which could be good news for proponents of an aboriginal youth centre in East Vancouver.

There is evidence that the education system has come some distance in designing courses to help aboriginal children achieve a brighter future. Ken Clement’s presence on the school board would only help this urgent task get started and finished. Clement has been an organizer and activist all of his adult life. Nowhere on any slate of candidates are there credentials more legitimate in their integrity and focused energy. For this very good reason he believes he can “make a difference through positive role modeling.” Clement’s résumé lists, among other significant things, his work as President of Lu’ma Native Housing Society for nearly 20 years and his 15 years as Executive Director with “Healing Our Spirit, B.C.”, a province-wide program assisting aboriginals infected or affected by HIV/AIDS. This was a course he chose after his own brother died of the disease.

I am not in the business of endorsements but I do have two young daughters in public school, which makes it impossible for me to ignore issues that arise in relation to education. My daughters have both been enrolled in aboriginal programs that seek to complement the three R’s with field trips to learn from native elders about the life cycle of the salmon, how to build a teepee, how to discern between poisonous and other types of mushrooms, and recognition of other traditional native medicinal herbs and roots as well as just good old tasty berries off the bush. It seems to me that these and other programs like them are the programs that will be axed by reactionary politicians at every level of government. The first line of defense against such short sightedness is the local parent teacher groups that—try as they may to have some influence on the system—can do nothing if not represented at the Board level by progressive trustees.

It is just so incredibly important to have a sympathetic member of the community elected to the Vancouver Board that it defies argument. With the happy explosion of active support for Vision mayoral candidate Gregor Robertson and the team that has gathered around him and with the United Front pragmatically in place joining Vision and COPE and the Greens, we have a great opportunity to elect the perfect man for the job. “I fled the residential school system,” says Clement, who attended St. Eugene’s in Cranbrook. “I came to Vancouver in the hopes of seeing the new light of day.”

The Vancouver school district is a large multicultural district providing programs to 56,000 students from Kindergarten to Grade 12, over 3,000 adults in adult education programs and over 40,000 in continuing education. It is our responsibility as parents to ensure that we have a school board that ensures the highest quality of learning experiences for all students, and promotes a focus on student engagement, learning, and development in a safe, secure, and inclusive environment.

Ken Clement is the man for the job. I am absolutely convinced that he will put the “trust” back in term “trustee.”