A child growing up on a reserve has to decide: Shall I live on-reserve or "go to town" and adapt to life in mainstream Canada? Both should be viable options. To make them viable, reserve schools have two major tasks – to teach traditional culture and the core competencies of reading, writing, science and mathematics necessary for success in the mainstream economy. With honourable exceptions, on-reserve schools are failing at both tasks.
That is the first message to take from the report of the panel on K-12 on-reserve education released this month. This panel was a joint venture of the Assembly of First Nations and the Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development. In the diplomatic language of the panel's report, "The education attainment among first nation students is not sufficiently strong … to allow them to reach their potential."
"Not sufficiently strong" is a serious understatement. Over the past two decades, reserve schools have made negligible progress in terms of reducing dropout rates. Among young first nations adults, ages 20-24, about 60 per cent living on-reserve are without a high-school certificate; even among those living off-reserve 30 per cent have incomplete secondary studies. The figure among young non-aboriginal Canadians is 13 per cent.
So what can be done to bring about convergence of school outcomes between first nations students and other Canadian children?
Rightly, the panel insists there is no silver bullet. The sad legacy of residential schools justifies a certain skepticism toward formal schooling among first nations leaders. Even with generous budgets, organizing successful schools in isolated communities – aboriginal or not – is hard to do well. And many reserve school budgets are not adequate.
But there are other reasons. The panel identifies an important barrier to education success: "The education 'system' for first nations students on reserve is a far cry from any system that other Canadians would recognize in terms of … degree of input, accountability, and democratic governance most Canadians take for granted." Reserve schools operate, the panel concludes, in a "non-system." Each band council runs its own school much as, a century ago, each rural municipality in the Prairies ran its own one- or two-room school.
In diplomatic language, members of this panel are advising band chiefs and councils on the need for "first nation education authorities" – in other words, the need to professionalize school management by introducing school boards that assume responsibility for running a number of reserve schools across, say, all of southern Saskatchewan or northern Manitoba. Such "authorities" would be democratically accountable to the first nations living within the region, but schools would no longer be primarily accountable to individual band councils.
The panel members insist there should be no standardized "education authority" imposed from one end of the country to the other. Nonetheless, they acknowledge a necessary condition for better school outcomes is that "education authorities" be able to exercise many of the activities performed by school boards for provincial schools. These include hiring of teachers, including specialist teachers, who may rotate among schools based on need, negotiating salaries and terms of teacher employment, designing curriculum, testing and reporting student outcomes.
In addition to "education authorities" there are other recommendations, such as a first nations education act and a national commission for first nations education "to support education reform and improvement." As expected, panel members call for increased and stable funding.
It is too soon to know whether there will be "an understanding" or whether this report will be ignored. Skeptics can point to a long list of ignored reports – by the Senate, by the auditor-general, by policy institutes, by aboriginal and non-aboriginal academics – all of which contain pleas for reform of the reserve school "non-system." Skeptics will remind us that shortly after this panel was formed, some provincial first nations organizations condemned it as a threat to treaty rights. Opposition MPs may seek partisan advantage and damn the government for having taken six years before turning to the problem. Government MPs may retort that, when in office, the Liberals did no better.
The skeptics may well be right; I hope not.
John Richards teaches at Simon Fraser University's Public Policy School and holds the Roger Phillips chair in social policy at the C.D. Howe Institute.