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High schools across Canada are figuring out unique ways to celebrate this spring’s graduates, with the usual ceremonies of caps and gowns and pomp and circumstance cancelled because of the pandemic.

But a closer look at this annual ritual exposes one of Canada’s stubbornly stark divides: Indigenous teenagers finish high school at much lower rates than other young Canadians. That disparity has a high cost, for Indigenous people and the country.

More than 90 per cent of non-Indigenous Canadians in their early 20s have a high-school diploma. The graduation rate for Métis Canadians is not far behind, at 84 per cent. For First Nations people living off-reserve, it’s 75 per cent. But according to a recent C.D. Howe Institute study, among First Nations Canadians in their early 20s living on a reserve, only 48 per cent have finished high school. The graduation rate for Inuit Canadians is similarly low.

It’s a grim picture, but it’s also an improving one. Sixty-four per cent of First Nations adults in 2016 had at least a high-school education, an increase of 10 percentage points in a decade, according to Statscan data. Métis and Inuit made similar gains.

For those dreaming of a better Canada, these figures are a challenge. Things are not as they should be. However, there are signs of progress, pointing the way forward.

It’s estimated that 350,000 Indigenous children will turn 15 in the decade from 2016 through 2026. This cohort has the chance to shape the future of the country. Governments – Indigenous, provincial and federal – have to ensure that more Indigenous teens graduate from high school, and then go on to college, university and the trades.

The rising graduation rates of recent years show that the strategies in place in some jurisdictions, notably British Columbia, are delivering results. But while B.C. leads, Saskatchewan and Manitoba lag. Upwards of a third of the school-age population in those two Prairie provinces is Indigenous.

In Manitoba, the graduation rate of First Nations youth living on reserve is just 36 per cent. In B.C., however, it’s 70 per cent. In Manitoba, just 61 per cent of Indigenous youth living off-reserve graduate. B.C.’s rate: 81 per cent.

Not long ago, B.C. was where Manitoba now stands. B.C.’s success in achieving change is underpinned by data and by investment, identifying problems and finding ways to fix them – and spending the money. B.C. for years has published an annual “How are we doing?” report full of ample detail, district by district, of Indigenous students in reading, writing and math.

In 2015, the B.C. Auditor-General put out a long list of recommendations, and last year measured the province’s progress. There is also frank acknowledgement of issues such as what the Auditor-General calls the “racism of low expectations,” a subconscious bias among some educators about the inherent potential of Indigenous youth.

In 2001, B.C. had a 39-percentage-point gap between the graduation rates of Indigenous and non-Indigenous students. Over the past two decades, however, Indigenous graduation rates have surged. The graduation gap, though still too large, has been more than halved.

Most Indigenous Canadians live off-reserve and in cities, which in theory gives them a shot at the same educational opportunities as everyone else. On reserve, however, too many schools are in bad shape, lacking basics such as functioning libraries, science labs and gyms. The Assembly of First Nations and the Harper government struck a deal for better funding and standards but the effort fell apart in 2015. The following year, the Liberals committed $1-billion.

Beyond high school, supporting Indigenous teenagers into and through postsecondary education is key. Fewer than one in 10 Indigenous Canadians have a bachelor’s degree. For all Canadians, regardless of race, there are economic disparities between those with more education, and those with less. Indigenous Canadians are not immune to this trend: The median income of First Nations adults working with a university degree is about $70,000, compared with about $40,000 for those working with high-school diplomas.

The challenges in Indigenous education are big but progress is possible, and it’s happening. The goal, in a June not far in the future, is for Indigenous teens to finish high school, and go on to more education and life-long success, at the same rate as all other Canadians.

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