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Wherever they went in Canada, Christian missionaries set up voluntary boarding schools and day schools for aboriginal children. The Canadian government began to involve itself at the end of the 1870s, when the end of the buffalo destroyed the economy of the Plains Indians and Métis. Famine loomed in the short term; in the longer term, it seemed necessary to help the native population convert from hunting to agriculture as a way of life.

What happened on the Prairies in the 1870s occurred everywhere in Canada at one time or another as the expansion of white settlement undercut the viability of the aboriginal economy. One can talk glibly about preserving native culture, but cultures don't exist in a vacuum. Culture is a way of making a living; when the means of survival undergo a fundamental shift, people will perish unless their culture is also transformed.

Once settlement extended from sea to sea, the future was clear: No one had any prospects in Canada without being able to read and write English or French, to acquire skills other people would pay for, to work according to the standardized calendar of an industrial society and to deal freely with others outside the kin group. That meant a massive cultural transformation for native people, and formal education had to be part of it.

It would have been truly genocidal for Canada, having destroyed native people's livelihood, to refuse assistance in educating their children to survive in the new world of industrial civilization. Native leaders were well aware of the challenge and begged for help. But how to deliver it?

Then, as now, three major alternatives existed for Indian children: to mingle with other children in off-reserve public schools, to attend day schools on the reserve or to be sent to residential schools. All three options were widely used; indeed, historian Jim Miller estimates that, even at the residential schools' peak, they never enrolled more than one-third of Indian and Inuit children.

Residential schools were mainly established in the West and North, where distances were great and native populations were still attached to whatever was left of the hunting and fishing economy. Under those conditions, children's attendance at day schools was often erratic or impossible, as their families would be away for long periods each year.

Now, we have turned against residential schools and decry the hardships they imposed on children and their families. But do we really know how much, or even whether, residential schools were worse than the other alternatives feasible at the time? The Department of Indian Affairs should commission some systematic research into the life outcomes of the graduates of the three forms of native education. Which group achieved greater material success, suffered fewer social pathologies and raised more successful children and grandchildren? Researchers in the department could answer those questions if they were given the assignment.

Such research is not just a matter of antiquarian curiosity. We badly need reliable information on the history of aboriginal education, because we (and "we" includes aboriginal leaders) are not doing so well in the present. Fifty years from now, we may be apologizing again for having failed aboriginal youth after the residential schools were phased out.

Investigative reporter Daphne Bramham reports that 27,000 aboriginal children are now in government care, compared to 9,000 children in residential schools at their apex in the 1940s. Much child protection is now carried out by aboriginal agencies, so this cannot be just a matter of overzealous white social workers scooping up culturally different native children. These are children suffering abuse or severe neglect.

What about educational achievement? In 2001, 41 per cent of Indians on reserves over the age of 15 had completed high school, compared to 69 per cent of all Canadians. (Statistics Canada did not collect comparable information in 2006.) In 2006, 4 per cent of Indians on reserves aged 25 to 64 had university degrees, compared to 23 per cent of all Canadians. Some first nations people have made inspiring progress in acquiring educational credentials, but the rate of advance seems to be levelling off. It is now little greater than the rate of advance in the general population. While there are heartening stories of individual success, the overall statistical picture is not so encouraging. Day schools on reserves have come in for considerable criticism.

The Office of the Auditor-General studied the education program of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada in 2000 and again in 2004. Both times, it came to the same conclusion: "The Department does not know whether funding to First Nations is sufficient to meet the education standards it has set and whether results achieved are in line with resources provided." Aboriginal leaders may be right that financial support for reserve schools is inadequate, but more than money is involved. Michael Mendelson of the Caledon Institute of Social Policy points out that self-government for first nations has led to "a standalone village-school model of education - a model that was outdated in the rest of Canada before the Second World War." And anecdotal evidence from reserve schoolteachers points to a distressing lack of family and community support for regular attendance, homework and other aspects of academic achievement.

The value of governmental apologies for past policies has been hotly debated. In any event, maybe we all can agree that apologies for residential schools should be accompanied by a hard-headed look at the current problems of aboriginal education.

Tom Flanagan, a former top aide to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, is now a professor of political science at the University of Calgary, and author of First Nations? Second Thoughts