Why fixing First Nations education remains so far out of reach

Aboriginal youth face a fate that should horrify Canadians and there’s an obvious fix
The photos were at Beardy’s & Okemasis Willow Cree First Nation on May 31st, 2014, we usually refer to it as "Beardy’s and Okemasis" or just "Beardy’s"

On Aug. 17, the body of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine was pulled from Winnipeg’s Red River. Police divers had been scouring the waterway in search of Faron Hall, a well-known homeless man who drowned in the river, when they discovered Fontaine. She had been murdered, her body wrapped in a bag. Her death has renewed calls for a public inquiry into the disappearance and murder of aboriginal women and girls.

This article exploring the plight of Canada’s aboriginal children originally appeared on July 14, 2014:

Photographs by Derek Mortensen

Mike McKenzie celebrated his 21st birthday in May. For many Canadians, 21 is a milestone, an age when they graduate from university and begin their adult lives. For McKenzie, it’s something of a miracle.

Growing up in the isolated Skeetchestn Indian Band, a community of around 260 in the B.C. Interior, he spent his childhood shuffling between the school on the reserve and, when it was shut down for a time, enduring racist taunts at a Catholic school in Kamloops. Eventually, he dropped out altogether. His family was devastated by his older brother’s suicide in 2003, and four years ago, McKenzie decided he, too, was destined for an early grave. “I had a hard time at that time in my life, controlling my anger,” he says now. “I got to the point where I was really upset and really isolated in my community. There was just nothing there for me. I came to the conclusion that it wasn’t worth it, that I wanted to kill myself finally.”

His turnaround came after attending an Aboriginal youth conference that allowed him to meet with other First Nations teens living on reserves. He realized his struggles were hardly unique. Isolation, depression and substance abuse are rampant among Aboriginal youth growing up in remote communities. Many of the youth that McKenzie has since met have bounced in and out of foster care or jail, struggled to escape from gang violence or are grieving family and friends who committed suicide.

Today, McKenzie has re-enrolled in school, online, and is active in Aboriginal youth organizations, determined to help blaze a new trail for future generations of Native Canadians. “I thought, there’s no point in sticking around if I’m not going to make some meaningful change,” he says. Even so, it’s been an uphill battle. On the day he speaks to Maclean’s, McKenzie has just come from the funeral of a 23-year-old Kamloops Indian Band man who died of pneumonia. The community has buried at least one young person a year for the past four years.

Ending the cycle of poverty and violence among Aboriginal youth can seem like an impossibly daunting endeavour. After decades of negotiations, commissions and protests, including last year’s Idle No More movement and Ottawa’s recent unsuccessful attempt to reform First Nations education funding, Aboriginal children continue to face a fate that should horrify most Canadians.

Half of First Nations children live in poverty, with rates reaching as high as 64 per cent of children in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. They are far more likely to grow up in communities racked with violence, live in overcrowded housing and lack access to clean drinking water. Nine of Canada’s 10 most violent communities are Aboriginal, according to Statistics Canada’s violent crime index, as are 92 of Canada’s 100 poorest communities.

Deep poverty and domestic violence have pushed many Aboriginal youth toward a life of crime. Compared to non-Native Canadians, Aboriginal youth are seven times more likely to be victims of homicide, five times more likely to commit suicide and twice as likely to die an alcohol-related death. A rising number of Native teenagers are in custody: in 1997, just 12 per cent of young offenders in custody were Aboriginal. Today, it’s one in three.

That’s if they make it to their teenage years at all. The infant mortality rate is double the Canadian average, and Native children are at higher risk of a wide array of serious health problems, from cavities in toddlers, to substance abuse, HIV infections, tuberculosis and chlamydia. Aboriginal girls are at greater risk of sexual assault, domestic violence and teenage pregnancies. The number of children taken from their homes by child welfare authorities now exceeds the number taken at the height of the residential-school era, says Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society. Aboriginal children are 10 times more likely to be placed in foster care than the Canadian average and make up half of the roughly 60,000 kids in care.

So how, in one of the richest, most progressive countries in the world–where non-Native youth seem to have the world at their fingertips–is this allowed to happen? Even Ottawa has admitted Canada’s Aboriginal population has essentially become entrenched as second-class citizens. In a federal government study comparing Aboriginal communities to the United Nations’ Human Development Index, an international measure of quality of life, Canada ranked eighth, between the U.S. and Japan. The Inuit population, meanwhile, ranked 63rd, slightly better than Libya, while First Nations reserve communities ranked 72nd, on par with Romania.

These conditions have given Canada a black eye internationally. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have both inveighed against Ottawa for the treatment of Natives, which mocks the values Canada espouses on the world stage. So has the former United Nations special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous people: “Treaty and Aboriginal claims remain persistently unresolved, indigenous women and girls remain vulnerable to abuse, and overall there appear to be high levels of distrust among indigenous peoples toward government at both the federal and provincial levels,” noted James Anaya in a report earlier this year.

No one can agree on how to even begin to address the crisis. Some blame government paternalism. Others, including some Native youth, say it’s the Native leadership that benefits from the status quo. Better education would seem to offer one solution, but many deeply distrust a system that has failed them so badly, and governments have failed to put forth an attractive alternative.

Perhaps the problem has become so big that no one knows how to tackle it. Meanwhile, Aboriginal Canadians are the country’s youngest and fastest-growing population. Between 2006 and 2011, the Aboriginal population grew 20 per cent, compared to five per cent for non-Native Canadians. The average age among Aboriginals is just 28, compared to a national average of 41. Among the Inuit, it’s just 23. If unaddressed, the problems will only get worse.

The picture painted by statistics is bleak—more so because many non-Aboriginals have tuned out Native issues. Speak to people of influence in the indigenous population and you’ll hear words like “partnership” and “relationship” to describe the way forward for First Nations and the rest of the country, even as they vent anger. One is Mervin Brass, a former official with the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations who now publishes Treaty 4 News, a Saskatoon-based newspaper that covers Native communities. Yes, stereotypes still prevail among white people he hears calling open-line radio shows.

“But it’s the people in the middle I worry are tuning out,” he says. “The thinking, liberal-minded people, because they’re the ones who’ll help determine how this relationship continues.” That withdrawal, says Brass, is part of a vicious political cycle in which disinterest in Aboriginal issues makes it harder for even well-meaning non-Native leaders to get the topic onto the political agenda. “They know that First Nation, Métis and Inuit issues are not high in the voters’ minds. And they know if they take a tough stance against First Nations, it’ll increase their support in some demographics.”

The result, say community leaders, is profound misunderstanding of the despair in First Nations territories—both its scale and its causes. Almost all of the reserves in crisis are located in remote areas where no industry emerged to supplant hunting and fishing; those that succeed are located in the south and are increasingly integrated with the economic life around them.

Herman Michell grew up in one of those remote places, the Reindeer Lake First Nation, near the Manitoba-Saskatchewan boundary. Today, equipped with a Ph.D., he runs a company that trains teachers to work in Saskatchewan’s isolated northern communities. “We have kids coming into our classrooms hungry,” he says, voice trembling. “They’ll have been staying up all night because of things that are happening in their homes.”

John Cuthand, an addictions counsellor who works at the Yekooche First Nation in B.C., about 250 km northwest of Prince George, sees the fallout first-hand. Some 40 children have been removed from their homes in the community, he notes, where only about 100 people live permanently.

Alcohol abuse continues—though it is a nominally dry community. Prescription drug abuse is rampant because pills are easier to transport than liquor. Sexual violence, meanwhile, is a reality to which some in the hamlet seem resigned. Cuthand described cases involving girls who have been sexually assaulted, yet whose attackers continued to enjoy acceptance in the community. “To have to see the perpetrator every day, that’s very difficult,” he says. But at least some of the victims stick around: “They’re dedicated to the community. Or maybe they just don’t know anything different.”

Photographs by Derek Mortensen
Photographs by Derek Mortensen

Nothing represents the intractable nature of the problems facing Aboriginal Canadians more than the battle over education, which remains the best way young people can climb out of poverty and yet continues to be one of the most politically charged issues for government-Aboriginal relations.

More than half of Canada’s Aboriginal population hasn’t finished high school and just six per cent have a university degree. Many blame the federal government for spending less on Aboriginal schools than the provinces put into their public school systems. The size of the gap is the source of much debate, but an analysis last year by economist Don Drummond found the difference was as large as $8,000 per student in Ontario.

The results are palpable, especially in already economically depressed reserves. Unemployment among Aboriginals is more than twice the Canadian average. A third of the population is on social assistance, rising to more than 80 per cent in some communities. Closing the education gap between Native Canadians and the rest of the country would add more than $36 billion to the economy by 2026, according to a 2010 report from the Centre for the Study of Living Standards.

The national education statistics, however, mask a growing divide among Aboriginal communities, one that has helped fuel bitter disputes between the Native leadership over how to fix the problem. Off-reserve Aboriginals have made tremendous gains in educational achievement, while those attending federally funded schools have stagnated. By 2011, more than 70 per cent of those off reserve had graduated from high school, compared to 45 per cent on reserve. Inuit communities have been going in reverse; between 1998 and 2011, the number of students who hadn’t finished high school rose from 48 to 59 per cent.

Yet efforts to reform the First Nations education system, with its tarnished legacy of the residential-school era, continue to divide politicians and Aboriginal leaders. “The people who are letting everybody down are the governments and primarily the federal government, which continues to underfund education on reserves,” former prime minister Paul Martin told Maclean’s last year. “The discrimination by the federal government is absolutely abhorrent, but I certainly believe that Aboriginal Canada is rising to the challenge.”

Martin’s own legacy on the issue is mixed. Many blame him for freezing education funding to reserve schools at two per cent a year in the 1990s when he was finance minister. That cap remains in place and hasn’t kept pace with the growth of the Aboriginal population. Yet Martin devoted his two-year stint as prime minister to negotiating the Kelowna Accord, a $5-billion funding agreement for health and education that he says was meant to “telescope 150 years of this kind of discrimination and try and eliminate it right away.” Stephen Harper’s Conservatives later scrapped the accord.

Education reform has likewise proven to be the poison arrow for Aboriginal leaders. Before he was felled by his personal demons, former Conservative senator Patrick Brazeau angered many Aboriginal leaders by coming out against the Kelowna Accord, at one point calling it “an exercise in throwing more money at problems.” Shawn Atleo, who came to power as Assembly of First Nations (AFN) national chief on a promise to “smash the status quo,” was soon labelled an Ottawa insider for his willingness to negotiate with the Harper government, particularly when it came to education funding. He was ultimately brought down by his decision to support Harper’s proposed First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act, the Conservatives’ $1.9-billion scaled-down answer to the Kelowna Accord.

The legislation represented Harper’s most ambitious plan to reform Aboriginal-government relations, but it came with enough strings attached to deeply split the Native leadership between those who wanted to use it as a springboard for negotiations with Ottawa and those who felt the bill would erode Aboriginal rights and treaty agreements. In a heated day-long meeting in May, AFN members, representing 633 communities across the country, voted to reject the proposal and demand the government spend the $1.9 billion immediately. Atleo resigned. Ottawa, expressing “disappointment,” walked away.

Division among a group as large and diverse as the AFN is normal, argues Blackstock of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society. “To me, that’s a healthy symptom of democracy.” But Mike McKenzie, who attended the meeting as a delegate from Skeetchestn and was one of 60 people to abstain from voting, sees the Harper government’s proposal as a flawed but important first step in talks with Ottawa. He worries some elders are sacrificing a generation of Aboriginal children whose schools won’t receive any new money in order to preserve the status quo. “Some of the chiefs, they really don’t want to see the youth get up and speak,” he says. “It’s like some of the people don’t want to see change and so the dysfunction lives on.”

While it may be gone, the residential-school system continues to fuel the deep distrust toward education in many First Nations communities given its history as a tool of cultural assimilation, says Laura Arndt, strategic director for the Ontario Office of the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth. “In my house, it is not a proud thing to be a university graduate. It means you’re less Indian because you’re educated. Why would children want to get a good education when they feel they lose themselves in the process?”

Yet as the first generation to grow up without experiencing the residential-school system, many First Nations youth don’t always understand what’s driving that distrust toward education within their own families. “When you go into some of these communities, there’s an air of something but no one knows where it’s coming from,” says Uko Abara, 25, who helped launch Feathers of Hope, a forum for First Nations youth in Northern Ontario. “A lot of people who went through it still don’t acknowledge that residential schools happened. So a lot of the young people growing up don’t recognize that their parents or grandparents went through this traumatic experience.”

The legacy of residential schools also lives on in the fact that Aboriginal youth living in remote areas are often forced to leave their communities to attend the nearest high school. With few jobs back home, many never return. It has become a Catch-22. Communities need jobs to give their young people a reason to get educated, but they need education to create the economic development that leads to jobs. “You can get an education that allows you to walk in two worlds, the big city and your home community,” says Arndt. “But the problem is, you can only survive in one.”

Mike McKenzie has a foot in both of those worlds. His father is a residential-schools survivor, 30 years sober. Yet as a dropout himself, now three credits away from finishing his high school diploma, McKenzie worries about the future of the children he sees now going to school in Skeetchestn, where—due to funding constraints—Grades 8 to 12 are all in the same class. Grades 11 and 12 are studying on a “home school” curriculum.

“I can agree there’s lots of government paternalism out there. I can agree there has been hundreds of years of discrimination. What I can’t agree with is justifying our behaviour because of that,” he says. “We can’t keep going like this for another three years until we find another agreement. It’s putting us behind.”

While he’s frustrated at lack of progress from both government and Aboriginal leaders, McKenzie isn’t waiting around for someone else to fix the problem. He is weighing his options to either head to university or join the RCMP. He’s involved in a handful of community organizations, including counselling young people in remote and isolated communities. The work has brought him to Ottawa to meet with government officials and ministers. In his spare time, he earned his certificate in basic B.C. firefighter training and served as chief of his local volunteer fire department.

What Aboriginal youth need most, he says, is to hear they’re not alone, that however intransigent the present-day problems may seem, the future is far from hopeless. “If you can give young people the initiative and the opportunity to see it, it’s possible to pull yourself out of it,” he says. “You don’t have to be condemned from day one just because you were born on a reserve.”

Still, for so many Native children, that remains the harsh reality of life in Canada.