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The Globe and Mail

For the next generation of Inuit, hope lies in education

Mary Simon with Hailey Kublu at the Ottawa Inuit Children's Centre.

Patricia D'Souza/ITK

The Globe and Mail's focus on Canada's Arctic leads me to a fundamental question: How can we renew confidence and hope for the future in our Inuit youth? This is an important question for all Canadians. It's a question that deserves a thoughtful answer and a commitment to supporting solutions.

Hope is something that fuels our drive forward as parents, as leaders in our communities and as a country. Faced with daunting and complex issues, we draw on our reservoir of hope to remind us of our duty to the next generation. As national leader of Canada's Inuit, I have often reflected on hope amid the reports and statistics of broken dreams and lives that place Inuit in the unenviable lead in social crises.

For the next generation of Inuit, the roots of hope must lie in education.

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My early education occurred in an environment of encouragement and support. As a young girl in northern Quebec in the 1950s, my family lived a traditional lifestyle, speaking only the Inuit language, travelling by dog team, hunting, fishing and gathering our food. My grandmother taught us how family ties are at the core of Inuit culture.

All of this changed abruptly when young Inuit were torn from their families and sent to residential and federal day schools. What happened in these schools over several decades is only beginning to be heard by Canadians. Whatever the intentions behind these schools, many young Inuit were broken by what happened there. For Inuit as a whole, this experience shook our belief in ourselves and wrought havoc on the core of Inuit society: the family. We experienced "future shock" - too much change in too little time.

So on that day in June, 2008, when I stood in the House of Commons to hear the Prime Minister's apology on residential schools, I heard some long overdue words of hope.

The apology bears witness that history need not be our destiny. Mere hope, however, is not a plan. And a plan means little without concrete action. Our future lies in embracing a new era in education in Canada's Arctic - an era dedicated to investing in Canada's youngest citizens. More than 55 per cent of Inuit are under 25, but three out of four Inuit students do not graduate. This cannot be acceptable in 21st-century Canada. If our economy is worthy of a stimulus plan, shouldn't our next generation deserve the same?

For the past several years, I have been working with national and regional Inuit leaders, with education department officials in Newfoundland and Labrador, Quebec, Nunavik, Nunavut, the Northwest Territories and the federal government, to develop a new vision for Inuit education. It's a vision that insists on our education systems providing our young people with the confidence and the choices to thrive.

Later this spring, Inuit will release a national strategy on Inuit education.

The strategy begins with a focus on parents. We will need to restore the trust of parents, who have been deeply hurt by their own educational experiences, and engage parents as partners in education. We need confident parents to raise confident children. This confidence will rise from an education system grounded in the Inuit language, culture and worldview, and graduating students to standards both relevant to the Arctic and respected across Canada.

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A robust education system begins with quality, accessible early-childhood education so our children are ready for school. We need to train more bilingual educators and provide them with learning resources in our language. And it is time Canada's Arctic had its own university to provide tangible inspiration and opportunity for our young people.

It will take community leadership to insist on education standards being developed and met.

Each generation places its hopes in the next. Our responsibility as parents and leaders must be to ensure this next generation of Inuit children believes that education will be a place of dreams, expectations and hope.

Mary Simon is president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami.

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