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Opinion Census 2016: Where is the discussion about Indigenous education?

John Richards is a professor at Simon Fraser University's School of Public Policy and a fellow-in-residence at the C.D. Howe Institute.

Recently, Statistics Canada released the final batch of results from the 2016 census. It included education statistics for Canadians – including Indigenous Canadians.

Perhaps Indigenous education outcomes are the most important findings in this final batch, and among Indigenous education outcomes, perhaps the most important are high school completion results among young adults. They provide a snapshot of how Canada's K-12 school systems are performing. For the record, among non-Indigenous young adults (20-24) in 2016, 92 per cent have at least a high school certificate. (Canada is above the overall OECD average.) Among Métis, 84 per cent have completed high school. Among First Nations young adults living off reserve, 75 per cent. But among those living on reserve, only 48 per cent have done so – less than half.

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Regardless of race, children who do not complete at least high school are unlikely to gain regular employment and are probably doomed to poverty as adults. Arguably the best way to promote reconciliation between Indigenous and "settler" populations is to close unacceptably large education gaps, starting with high school.

Admittedly, both on and off reserve, First Nations results are five to six percentage points better than in the 2011 census. However, if any other sizable group of young Canadians realized such large high school completion gaps relative to the Canadian average, there would be a hue and cry.

Earlier in the decade, there was. Shawn Atleo, at the time national chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), spoke eloquently about the importance of education. Despite some serious disagreements between them, Atleo and then-prime minister Stephen Harper succeeded in negotiating legislation for the organization of reserve schools, plus a large increase in federal funding. Rather than look at the Atleo-Harper agreement as a glass half-full – which could be topped up – most chiefs and Liberal MPs denounced their efforts. Atleo resigned, and Harper let the legislation die when the election writ was issued in 2015.

While I think the legislation was a decent compromise, perhaps I am wrong and the legislation deserved to die. In 2016, the new, Liberal government quietly increased funding for reserve schools in line with the Atleo-Harper agreement, but there is little evidence of urgency on this file from either Ottawa or most Indigenous leaders. Among the 94 "calls to action" of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), only seven concerned K-12 education and only one referred explicitly to the provinces, the order of government responsible for almost all Indigenous students in high school.

It is important to realize that only half the Indigenous population are "registered Indians" entitled to live on reserve, and fewer than half of those "registered" actually live on reserve. Since there are few on-reserve high schools, most children living on reserve attend provincial high schools.

The AFN, the TRC and everyone else involved in K-12 education should be raising a hue and cry with provincial governments and their education ministries. The census shows which provinces deserve the most aggressive prodding. Among the six with large Indigenous student cohorts (Quebec to British Columbia), B.C. stands out as by far the best, Manitoba as the worst. In 2016, 70 per cent of on-reserve First Nations young adults in B.C. had completed high school; in Manitoba, only 36 per cent. In B.C., among First Nations young adults living off reserve, 81 per cent had a high school certificate; in Manitoba, 61 per cent. Some interprovincial differences are due to variations in social conditions – but only some.

As a generalization, both on-reserve and provincial schools are doing things better in B.C. than in the other provinces. Not perfect, but better. While B.C. has no "silver bullet" to close the gaps, it can point to many incremental initiatives over the past quarter-century that, cumulatively, have succeeded.

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If the on-reserve high school completion rate rises six points every five years, then in 35 years it will match the rate for non-Indigenous young adults. That's a long time to wait.

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