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There’s no easy answer for fixing education systems on remote First Nations reserves, where three in five students don’t graduate from high school, but one act would be to listen to the voices of those living in the North, who are often silenced.
There’s no easy answer for fixing education systems on remote First Nations reserves, where three in five students don’t graduate from high school, but one act would be to listen to the voices of those living in the North, who are often silenced.

The Granny Files

For children on First Nations reserves, educational choices are limited Add to ...

Nothing is so preoccupying as finding child care and navigating the school system when you are in the thick of child-rearing. And then the kids get older and you forget about it, the way you do with labour pains – until you have another baby, or your grandchildren enter the school system. I agonized, however vicariously, as I watched my son and daughter-in-law stress about whether their twin daughters should be in separate classes so they could “individuate,” or plunged into French immersion just as they were learning the intricacies of reading and writing.

The more I thought about the multiplicity of choices offered to my grandchildren in downtown Toronto, the more I worried about the lack of them in remote and isolated Indigenous reserves, where three in five students don’t graduate from high school. How can this deplorable situation be remedied?

I don’t have a definitive solution, but I am encouraged by a startup called Teach for Canada, a non-profit that is trying to upgrade educational standards and outcomes on First Nations reserves by turning the discredited residential-school model inside out. Instead of taking children out of their communities and sending them away to school, Teach for Canada founders Kyle Hill and Adam Goldenberg have devised a program that sends teachers to the reserves so the children can continue to live at home. That’s one part of the plan. Countering teacher attrition is another. Finding teachers to work in isolated communities is hard enough; keeping them there is another order of magnitude because many teachers simply don’t have the preparation or the stamina to prosper in conditions where essentials like clean water and heated classrooms are often substandard.

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“We listened and learned for three years,” Hill told me in a telephone interview, “having phone calls and meetings off the sides of our desks because we both had full-time jobs.” (Hill was working as a management consultant and Goldenberg as a lawyer.)

The duo didn’t want teachers signing on simply “to pay down student debt or to experience the North,” Hill explained. They built alliances with Indigenous communities in Northern Ontario, developed an extensive interview process with local band councils making the final hiring decisions of the teachers, who sign on for a minimum two-year contract. The recruits are put through a rigorous summer training program and, once in situ, become part of an online forum and a peer support network, among other aids.

With Hill as executive director and Goldenberg a member of the board, Teach for Canada launched its pedagogical match-making operation in 2015 with seven First Nations groups, expanded to 13 in 2016 and is hoping to work with 18 this year. So far they only operate in Ontario, but they are talking with Indigenous leaders in other provinces. Three of the 31 teachers didn’t make it through the first year. Although disappointing, that represents a 90 per cent retention rate, Hill points out.

Roxanne Martin, 30, an Ojibwa raised in the South, was part of the first cohort. When she accepted a teaching job in Lac Seul First Nation, she was excited about bringing her passion and her shiny teaching skills to the northwestern Ontario reserve, about 50 kilometres from Sioux Lookout. In return, she thought she and her young son Carter would be immersed in Ojibwa culture. The reality, after nearly two years on the job, has been harder and more inspiring than she ever imagined.

She has learned “to be humble,” she told me in a telephone conversation, “to be loving, to be understanding and to be open-minded.” Most of all she has realized that teaching in an isolated First Nations reserve is “not all about academics.” Instead, it is about “loving these kids, showing them that you care, coming in with a smile and pushing them harder to be the best they can be, and letting them know that I am here for them, no matter what.”

In that first year, one of her Grade 3/4 pupils wrote a suicide note. Now the girl is flourishing. She’s “happy to come to school,” and even does announcements in the morning. “She melts my heart,” says Martin. But there are just as many wrenching and despairing stories of eight- and nine-year-old kids caught smoking, or suspended because of violent and aggressive behaviour in the classroom.

The landscape may be heart-rendingly beautiful, but the kids have “nothing to do, nothing to keep their minds busy,” she says, no malls where they can go to the movies or hang out with their friends, not even any sidewalks on which to ride their bikes. The problems in the community seem unending: a lack of clean water, housing, adequate heating, even in the school. The list goes on.

The biggest issues, she says, are psychological, beginning with the seemingly unbreakable pattern of despair, ennui and addiction dating from the fallout of the residential-school system. Her students learn math and reading in school but many of them “can’t go home and practise” their newly acquired skills because “they don’t have positive role models and environments.” Without education, the kids are going to grow up like their parents,” she predicts, “and the cycle is just going to go on and on and on.”

That’s what her home life was like, she admits. “I had to grow up with alcoholic parents and grandparents,” she says. I can hear her tears and feel her despair as she continues. “I have lived through it. I know what it is like to go home from school and your parents are partying.” She overcame her background, but the loneliness of that experience fuels her passion, because what these kids need is “somebody who will step up and help them to use their voices. Our voices need to be heard in the North.”

What do you want us to hear? I ask. “We are here too,” she says. “Ontario doesn’t stop in Toronto, it doesn’t stop in Thunder Bay,” she told me, complaining about general indifference to conditions in the North. “Nobody cares if we have heat, if we have clean water, if we eat properly – the things you take for granted in the South.”

So, how can grandparents in the South help? Money is an obvious answer. (The donate button is prominently displayed on Teach for Canada’s website.) Martin, who has sent her own son back south because he is autistic and can’t get special education services in Lac Seul, talks about infrastructure improvements and the hiring of qualified teaching assistants and a “mental-wellness person,” somebody “you can talk to, cry to.” I’m ready to listen. After all, that is a traditional role for elders, and what are they, if not grandparents? So how do we do it? Is it letter-writing, phone calls? I don’t know the answer but I am hoping that together and in conjunction with local communities and Teach for Canada we can come up with some ideas, starting perhaps with a distance model for a home and school association.

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