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aboriginal schools

Kenzie Wilson of Clear Lake, MB poses for a photograph next to a Canadair CT-114 Tutor (Snowbirds) at the Museum of Aviation in Ottawa on November 21, 2011.Dave Chan

Children who live on native reserves often have their feet in two worlds when it comes to education and many are unprepared to sacrifice one for the other.

That's one of the messages that has been delivered repeatedly to a panel on first-nations learning that was struck a year ago by the federal government and the Assembly of First Nations.

The panel holds its final roundtable in Ottawa on Tuesday and Kenzie Wilson will be one of the participants. The 13-year-old who loves racing sled dogs across the ice near her home in Cross Lake in northern Manitoba says she wants to be a fighter pilot when she grows up. That means she has a lot of years of formal education ahead of her.

But she also says there are different types of learning. Her father has taught her about the trap line and the traditional ways of her Cree people. These are "skills not recognized by a piece of paper," she said in a recent essay that earned her a place at the roundtable.

Scott Haldane, the panel chairman, says he has heard often about the two spheres inhabited by first-nations youth during the months that he and two other panel members have travelled Canada to learn about reserve schools.

"We've had an opportunity to meet young people like Kenzie across the country who demonstrate that the resilience of first-nations students is remarkable, and who have the potential to achieve whatever they want to achieve," Mr. Haldane said, "but don't have the supports around them, generally speaking, to allow them to pursue that dream."

Tuesday's meeting, he said, will take everything that the panel has been told and try to find ways to put it into action.

The horrific legacy of the residential-school system has been widely recognized. But the reserve schools that replaced it have also done a disservice to generations of first-nations students: Fewer than 40 per cent are graduating from Grade 12.

In Kenzie's Grade 7 class, there are 28 students but just 26 desks. So two kids – those who showed up later than everyone else in September – were out of luck. "They stay home and they only come once in a while," she explained on Monday.

The obvious inequities between reserve schools and those funded by the provinces mean there is much riding on the panel that was struck to find solutions. And the stakes are also high for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who has made education the main plank in his aboriginal policy, and for Shawn Atleo, the National Chief of the AFN, who has had to defend the process to communities that remain skeptical of Ottawa's intentions.

A number of first nations refused to participate in the panel process. The leaders in those communities say they have heard this all before and the last thing that is needed is more study.

Caitlin Tolley, a 20-year-old student at the University of Ottawa, is from the Kitigan-Zibi First Nation in Quebec where leaders did not speak to the panel. And she says she understand their frustration.

But in the end, Ms. Tolley said, "I hope that every first-nations child in Canada will receive the same equal opportunity to realize their dreams and pursue their post-secondary education."

Kenzie's prized possession is the running stick that was handed down to her by a cousin. It is a metre-long staff adorned with an eagle claw, martin fur and feather and it is given to one young Cree in each community who exemplifies the best of his or her culture.

As someone who is dedicated to understanding her heritage, she said she is glad to be learning Cree in her local school. But she also wonders about the quality of the education she is getting.

"We need our traditional backgrounds to learn who we are and where we come from. It will help us survive in life," Kenzie said. "But you need education. You need to go to school. You need that in today's world to get a job."

Words of wisdom

Here are some excerpts from an essay written by Kenzie Wilson of Cross Lake, Man., who is one of two youth participants at the final roundtable of the National Panel on First Nation Elementary and Secondary Education.

"My goal in life is to become a fighter jet pilot. I will do everything I can to reach my goal and education will help me do this."

"My dad has a Grade 10 education. He started off as a labourer for hydro and he cannot move up because he does not have a Grade 12 degree. But my dad has been trapping since he was 12 and he was brought up the traditional way. He knows the trap line like the back of his hand. He also has skills that cannot be learned in the classroom. He has a different kind of degree. My dad learned different things and the different skills not recognized by a piece of paper. I am proud of my dad and I'm learning from him. And I cannot learn this from my teacher. My friends know very little of the traditional way of life. So, I am privileged to learn these teachings from my dad."

"The only difference between the two types of education that I have discussed is that one is recognized and one isn't. We need papers behind our names to live in today's world but we still need those traditional teachings to learn who we are and where we come from."