Skip to main content

Shawn Atleo, the new head of the Assembly of First Nations, made improvement in Indian education one of his campaign priorities.

Mr. Atleo earned a master's degree in education. He's a hereditary chief of the Ahousaht Indians, who live off Vancouver Island, on Flores Island, a place that that can only be reached by plane or sea. So Mr. Atleo must know something about the challenges of Indian education in general, and specifically those of getting an education on isolated reserves.

Mr. Atleo will need both sets of experiences, and more, to find ways to close the gaps between Indian and non-Indian education achievement - and between the weak educational performance of Indians on reserve and the somewhat better showing of those off reserve. (We're talking about Indian performance here, not overall aboriginal performance, since the situation for Inuit and Métis is different.)

Story continues below advertisement

Almost half of Canada's Indians - 40 per cent off reserve, 60 per cent on reserve - have less than a high-school education, according to the 2006 census. A little overall progress has been made in recent years, entirely by Indians off reserve. The share of individuals completing high school on reserve has fallen.

There's nothing at all surprising in the gap between off- and on-reserve performance. By any measure - unemployment, earned income, poverty, indicators of social dysfunction, education - Indians on reserves are worse off than those who live off.

In education, the situation is confusing because about two in five on-reserve students attend off-reserve schools. If educational achievement alone dictated where they should go, off reserve is the answer.

That observation is buttressed by the research of Simon Fraser professor John Richards, who has been tracking Indian educational achievement, alone and with other researchers. He has found that a) off-reserve Indian youngsters have better educational outcomes, b) the higher the concentration of Indian youths in a school, the poorer the educational outcome. Try to get more Indian students into mainstream schools, if academic achievement (as opposed, say, to learning an aboriginal language) is the desired result.

These sorts of findings irritate some Indian chiefs and teachers. The whole thrust of Indian leadership has been to reassert "nationhood," which often isn't easy to do with so few people living on the reserves that are supposed to be the heart of a nation's territory.

Leaving "nationhood" arguments aside, dollars follow numbers. If an aboriginal student attends school off reserve (in much of Canada), he or she is in a system financed by the province. If the student attends on reserve, the money for the school comes from Ottawa. The AFN asserts that the federal money, per capita, is a lot less than the provincial. Estimates of the per-student gap range from $1,000 to $5,000.

Eliminate that gap, insists the AFN, and educational performance in on-reserve schools will improve. Indeed, it might, but money remains only one factor influencing educational achievement.

Story continues below advertisement

Peer influence from other students. The cultural importance attached to formal education leading to work in the modern economy. (See Chinese and East Indian immigrant families.) Family formation and parental engagement in education. Geographic location. Teacher effectiveness, materials, facilities. These are among the factors that are at least as important as per capita grants in determining participation and outcomes by Indian children.

Then, there's the more fundamental problem with on-reserve education: the geographic, cultural or social isolation of so many reserves. A couple of thousand extra dollars per student won't do much about the challenges that accompany geographic isolation. Around many of the reserves, there are few job opportunities. Of those that do exist, not many require higher education. Where are the community, parental or regional incentives to achieve academically?

Mr. Atleo found those incentives, got his master's degree online and is chancellor of Vancouver Island University. Perhaps his life experience can be instructive in helping Indians, and non-Indians, to figure out how to lift on-reserve educational outcomes.

Poor outcomes obviously carry a personal cost. They cripple a community's hopes of economic advancement. They curb Canada's potential, too, especially provinces with large (and growing) Indian populations.

Poor outcomes lead to lost opportunities - and a greater cost to the treasury for use of government services.

Report an error
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Cannabis pro newsletter