Max FineDay is president of the University of Saskatchewan Student Union.
"There's no such thing as a dropout – there are forced-outs." With that phrase, Jane Elliott, an anti-racism advocate and former third-grade teacher, perfectly describes how Canadian education fails First Nations students. According to the C.D. Howe Institute, the dropout rate for indigenous peoples is four times higher than the national average.
This failure to educate indigenous students should alarm every Canadian. First Nations and Metis youth will make up 40 per cent of Saskatchewan's school-aged population by 2020, with similar rising indigenous populations in other areas of Canada. This very young population – the fastest-growing population in Canada – is being undervalued and underserved by the existing education system.
When I was a child going to urban public schools, there was rarely any mention of my people or our history. My class may have learned to make bannock over a fire on some field trip, or heard one day about a footnote of First Nations history, but that was the extent of it until I reached high school. Even then, beyond a brief unit here or there, learning about indigenous peoples in any meaningful way was deemed "optional." My classmates and I learned more about the Magna Carta and the Treaty of Versailles than the treaties my ancestors signed in the territory we were living in.
Indigenous children need, and deserve, an education that acknowledges their peoples and their contributions to Canada. Indigenous nations have trusted Canadian schools to provide what indigenous children need to succeed. The schools have failed.
Indigenous children are given less, expected to overcome more, and not afforded the care and attention other children receive. We must make education relevant to indigenous youth, to discuss histories that are often left out or glossed over. It's time to celebrate First Nations history, culture, language, ceremony, and worldviews. To incorporate this knowledge consistently, even daily, throughout the curriculum to ensure indigenous students' academic success.
It's time for a distinct school system focused on indigeneity to exist in Canada's cities.
Localized, place-based education rooted in the teachings of the Nation on whose territory the school resides would transform indigenous student success. Having urban schools focus on academic excellence through meaningful inclusion of indigenous content in each subject area, guided by indigenous principles, and prioritizing indigenous language fluency and retention is rarely, if ever, available. Some urban schools focus on indigenous learners, but often not until the damage has been done. Many of those students have already been forced out of the school system after not finding relevant content. Indigenous-focused schools then try to remedy other schools' failures, by which time it could be more difficult for the students to reach their full potential.
Education has been used as a tool to erase First Nations identity. The residential school system, unfortunately, was very effective in its goal of destroying the Indian in the child. Promotion of Indigenous identity and ways of education are needed to undo generations of damage perpetrated on indigenous people. We can heal, and have successful indigenous populations, by adopting indigenous language, literacy and numeracy; indigenous philosophy; indigenous games; indigenous art, drama, dance, oral traditions; and an understanding of science from an indigenous perspective.
Indigenous educational focus must not be limited to remedial education when the mainstream system has failed. We need these schools to begin at early childhood and continue through high school. We need full, rigorous, indigenous-focused academic programs where students can strive for academic excellence. These schools will challenge the idea that indigenous people are simply poor people with needs, and will instead acknowledge that they are full of potential that can be realized in schools that teach all required skills and knowledge in the rich cultural and linguistic traditions that exist across the country. Relevant extra-curricular programming in sports, arts, student leadership, and gay-straight alliances, for example, must form part of the school community.
These schools should not be exclusive to indigenous students. Children from all backgrounds, whether first-generation, fourth-generation, or one-hundredth-generation Canadians, should all be learning together about relationships to land, to each other, and receiving the very best valued-added education.
Canadians should celebrate this idea. We are a nation forged on partnership between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples, who once enjoyed learning from one another. Where has that gone?
People may argue about why this shouldn't happen. They'll argue about who pays. They may cry reverse racism.
My idea intends to amplify conversations indigenous parents whisper across the land. This is our nation's great unfinished business and Canada has to stop being cowardly about it. We can disagree about how, why, what, and who, but our children cannot afford the disregard they're currently receiving. This isn't a matter of if, but when.