Aboriginal Issues In Canadian Public Education – English Essay
In Canada, most of us are hardly surprised when we hear how disadvantaged our First Nations peoples are in terms of educational attainment, employment circumstances, health care and other social factors.
Today the high school graduation rate amongst Aboriginal youth is about half of what it is amongst other Canadian youths, 40% compared to 70%. Incidences of drug and alcohol abuse, gang involvement and suicide amongst Aboriginal 15-24 year olds are all much higher than they are amongst non-Aboriginal youth. Although there have been substantial improvements that have been implemented through many promising recent initiatives, First Nations youth are still highly over-represented in all of these negative indicators. This paper will focus on some of those problems and what has been, and is being done to ameliorate them.
Perhaps the most recent and profound example of how the Canadian government intends to alleviate problems with Aboriginal housing, education and health care was the one proposed by Prime Minister Paul Martin on November 23rd at the First minister’s conference held in Kelowna. It was then that the Prime Minister and his liberal government promised to spend over $4 billion dollars over the next four years to improve Aboriginal housing, health care and education. This amount includes $2 billion in compensation for former First Nations students who suffered physical and sexual abuse when they were forced into residential schools. Over 80,000 former students of the once mandatory system, which was meant to “Christianize” native children, can apply to get $2560 for each year that they were forced to attend a residential school.
These schools were first opened in the late 1800’s and were run as partnerships between various religious organizations and the Canadian government. These partnership agreements ended in 1969 but many residential schools continued to operate under the management of the federal government; the last federally funded residential school closed in 1996 in Saskatchewan. In 1950, over 40% of the instructors at residential schools had no professional training whatsoever and in 1995, Arthur Henry Plint former supervisor of the Alberta Indian residential school 1948-1953 and 1963-1968 plead guilty to 16 counts of indecent assault and was sentenced to 11 years in prison.
The curriculum in these schools was nothing like what other Canadian children were learning at the time. Class time consisted of one hour of religious training and 2 hours of instruction in reading, writing and mathematics; non-native schools had 5 hours of instruction in these and other subjects like science and foreign languages. In fact, the majority of the residential school curriculum was devoted to “civilization training” through which students were taught farming, cooking, sewing and cleaning. Cultural assimilation was the primary mandate of these schools but the effect of taking native children were away from their culture, language and elders was only to sever the intergenerational ties that held Aboriginal families and communities together.
The abolishment of the residential school system and the reparations that have been made have and will undoubtedly improve the lives of Aboriginal peoples in Canada but there are still many more hurdles to overcome. One example is the high incidence of gang involvement amongst First Nations youth in rural parts of Alberta and Saskatchewan.
In Hobbema, a rural community south of Edmonton, police officers have a caseload that is 3.5 times the national average, which is due in large part to the sizable amount of crime perpetrated by Aboriginal youths affiliated with gangs. According to Mel Buffalo, a spokesperson for the Samson Cree Nation, “This has gone beyond our control and we need help”. Aboriginal leaders in Hobbema are hoping that a cadet program aimed at youths aged 10-18 years will be the answer.
In Saskatchewan, gang affiliation amongst Aboriginal youth dropped significantly after RCMP Corporal Rick Sanderson established a cadet program there. Sanderson attributed much of the program’s success to its leadership programs and mandatory regimens of community service. By providing opportunities for high risk youth to see the negative consequences of their behavior from a position of authority instead of inferiority they begin to empathize with their community leaders. This in turn motivates them to work together with their elders to solve these problems. The community service they perform teaches them different approaches aimed at alleviating problems associated with Aboriginal gangs.
Unfortunately, the number of Aboriginal youths involved with cadets in Saskatchewan has dropped from 1,200 to 200 due to a lack of funding. However, Aboriginal leaders from all over Canada, including those Hobbema, have noticed Sanderson’s success and they are calling for his expertise. Buffalo is hopeful that establishing a cadet program in Hobbema could eventually lead to an Aboriginal police force. It is precisely this type involvement and pride in their community that Aboriginal youth will need if they are to resist the temptation of gang affiliation. Aboriginal youth in Hobbema and all over Canada are looking for acceptance from somewhere, and if they’re not getting it from their families or their community they’ll get it somewhere else.
Another problem faced by Aboriginal students has been the lack of culturally sensitive curricula and the absence of teachers trained to work with Aboriginal learners and communities. In September of 1974, the education department at UBC-Vancouver responded to this dilemma by creating the Native Indian Teacher Education program (NITEP). This program is only open to qualified education students of Aboriginal ancestry who wish to build upon and strengthen their cultural heritage and identity. The curriculum prepares aspiring First Nations educators by incorporating Aboriginal culture and knowledge with traditional pedagogical training. Enrollment and convocation figures were not available but the program has been successful enough to be recognized by the BC business community. BC Tel currently awards up to $3250 annually for qualified First Nations students enrolled in the NITEP.
Alberta Learning, the ministry of education in Alberta, has also made efforts to improve public education for First Nations, Inuit and Métis learners. In 2003, Alberta Learning, spent $1,750,000 on various programs aimed at providing “High quality learning opportunities that are responsive, flexible, accessible, and affordable to the learner”. These included offering grade 10, 11 and 12 language courses in Blackfoot and Cree at various high schools across Alberta and the development of grade 10, 11, and 12 curricula in Aboriginal studies (aboriginal social studies). Alberta Learning also made $3,393,000 available for more aboriginal teachers’ salaries, school improvement projects aimed at improving attendance and test scores at aboriginal schools and an Aboriginal teacher education program similar to the one currently offered at UBC. Total expenditures aimed at improving pre and post secondary education for Aboriginal students in Alberta were over $5.6 million in 2003.
In their paper titled “Parent Marginalization, Marginalized Parents: Creating a Place for Parents on the School Landscape” Bill Murphy and Debbie Pushor have addressed another problem common to parents of Aboriginal students in Canada. According to the authors, the main reason aboriginal parents are often marginalized and labeled as “difficult when they are advocates for their children or as apathetic by teachers and administrators when they do not become involved” is because public schools do not “culturally fit” with their experiences at home and in their communities. And, what makes things worse is that educators seldom ask why aboriginal parents rarely attend school oriented meetings like parent teacher interviews nor do these teachers question what they themselves could do differently to invite aboriginal participation.
In “Parent Marginalization…” Bill Murphy uses an example from his experience as a teacher in Fort Laird, a Dene Community in the Northwest Territories, to show how teachers can get more involved with Aboriginal parents. As part of his job there he was required to visit the homes of each one of his students before the school year began. Murphy spent eight years in Fort Laird and in that time he learned to cherish those home visits because they provided an opportunity for him to “establish communication with the home and to access [each] parent’s knowledge about their child”. By building these relationships and partnerships with Aboriginal parents he “facilitated the acknowledgement of parent voice and parent knowledge, which produced extraordinary experiences and significant improvements in his students’ performance”.
Murphy’s approach in Fort Laird sounds like it would only be applicable in a small community where everyone knows everyone else but he continued this practice of making home visits in other school communities that were far less rural and geographically larger. He admits that most of the parents he visited in urban areas were initially confused by his presence on their doorsteps but by the third or fourth visit they too were realizing the power of a close home-school relationship. By combining his professional expertise with their unique knowledge of Aboriginal home life and culture Murphy and his students’ parents were able to “live out an agenda of relationships that worked in reciprocally beneficial ways”.
Career and life planning for Aboriginal youth is another feature of First Nations peoples’ education that needs modification. According to Rod McCormick and Norman Amundson, career counseling with First Nations people doesn’t work because “it is based on a world view that is not shared by most aboriginals” and that “…to be effective, a counselor needs to understand the belief system and worldview of a culture before applying theories and techniques for healing”. They argue that Euro-American counseling approaches do not work with most Aboriginal youth because they are implicitly ethnocentric and do not address the fact that for most Aboriginal youths, “personal change occurs in the framework of the family and the community”.
The career-life planning model proposed by McCormick and Amundson includes five components, each of which plays an integral role in defining career and life roles for Aboriginals. The components include: core beliefs of connectedness, sharing of gifts, roles and responsibilities, balance and values.
Connectedness refers to the traditional Aboriginal belief that the Creator intended all inanimate and animate objects in the universe to be equal and related to one another, like members of a large extended family. As such, when a person seeks any form of help, other members of the family are usually involved. This approach lies in sharp contrast to the traditional western method of counseling, which tends to stress the role of the individual. More effective Aboriginal youth counseling must be applied in the context of the Aboriginal community and family.
First Nations people generally believe that “the Creator bestows unique gifts amongst every person and expects that those gifts will be used to their fullest potential so that the family and community are as strong as they can be”. In essence, these gifts can be thought of as callings or vocations which form “the underlying basis for aptitudes and skill development”.
Values and meaning are often overlooked amongst non-Aboriginals when they consider career choices but they are very important to Aboriginals because they form “collective sources of meaning”. McCormick and Amundson contend that the process of “forcible assimilation of Aboriginal people [has made it difficult for them] to connect with their traditional family, community and cultural values”. Aboriginal youth counselors must develop career decision making models that include these Aboriginal values. For most Aboriginal youth, it is only through an examination of these values that they can truthfully examine their strengths and limitations in ways that are respectful of themselves, their family and their community.
Most First Nations people believe in attaining balance between their mental, physical, spiritual and emotional selves. When balanced, they believe that individuals are healthy, capable and able to make good decisions. McCormick and Amundson recognize that “mainstream counseling often tends to focus on thinking, feeling, or behavior and tends to leave out the physical and spiritual”. Balance is an important consideration for Aboriginal youth counselors for the reasons listed above and because First Nations elders say that “living life in an unbalanced way leads to illness”.
McCormick and Amundson’s First Nations career-life planning model requires that information on the key components of connectedness, balance, roles, gifts and values be collected and integrated with more traditional counseling methods. Applying this method will ensure that the counseling is consistent with the worldview of Aboriginal youths.
Lastly, I would like to consider how and why Aboriginal culture should be integrated into the public school curriculum. Making the public school curriculum comprehensible to Aboriginal learners is crucial if we are to improve school success and dropout rates amongst Aboriginal youth. Earlier, I discussed how UBC-Vancouver and Alberta Learning have been making efforts to bridge the cultural gap between Aboriginal students and non-Aboriginal teachers and administrators. Now I would like to address how the current teaching population feels about integrating Aboriginal culture into their classrooms.
In her paper “Teacher’s Perceptions of the Integration of Aboriginal Culture into the High School Curriculum” Yatta Kanu interviewed two Aboriginal liaison workers to find out what the main incompatibilities between schools and Aboriginal culture are. The three main discrepancies that she discovered were: “(a) incompatibility between schools’ rigid approach to dealing with time and Aboriginal peoples more flexible view of time; (b) incompatibility between schools large classes and Aboriginal teaching methods such as the talking circle; and (c) incompatibility between the regimentation of the classroom experience and Aboriginal people’s cultural value of noninterference in childrearing (noninterference means refraining from directly criticizing an individual or attempting to control the behavior of others through direct intervention)”.
Through her research, Kanu was able to make ten recommendations for guiding the successful integration of Aboriginal culture into the high school curriculum. They include providing opportunities for all teachers, non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal alike, to learn about Aboriginal culture, issues and perspectives. With this in mind, UBC should consider removing the restriction from its NITEP program that stipulates that all NITEP students must have Aboriginal ancestry. Kanu also recommended that “schools must allocate part of their budgets to providing and sustaining financial support for educational resource persons such as Aboriginal liaison workers”. Progress in this area has been made; in 2001 there were approximately 500 Aboriginal workers employed by the government. However, improvements to the system are still needed since most of those workers still do not have accurate job descriptions.
Providing more Aboriginal education opportunities for current and aspiring teachers and hiring more Aboriginal liaison workers will likely reduce some of the incompatibilities mentioned above, viz. the incompatibility between schools large classes and Aboriginal teaching methods such as the talking circle; and the incompatibility between the regimentation of the classroom experience and Aboriginal people’s cultural value of noninterference in childrearing. Kanu addresses the other incompatibility, i.e. the one between schools’ rigid approach to dealing with time and Aboriginal peoples more flexible view of time, in her recommendation that “Schools need to consider changes to certain existing school structures such as timetabling and course scheduling”.
In this paper, I have attempted to address some of the more salient problems in Aboriginal education in Canada and to provide some insights that others have had in how to deal with them. Most of us would agree that the restorative processes currently underway and those that are being proposed are fraught with enormous challenges, but these challenges are not insurmountable if we as educators, administrators and parents work together to facilitate them.
1. Monchuck, J. “We Need Help”, The Canadian Press, August 26, 2005 A3
2. Murphy, B., Pushor, D. “Parent Marginalization, Marginalized Parents: Creating a Place for Parents on the School Landscape” Alberta Journal of Educational Research Vol. 50 (2004) Issue 3, 221-233
3. McCormick, R, Amundson, N., “A Career-Life Planning Model for First Nations People” Journal of Employment Counseling Vol. 34 (1997), Issue 4, 171-177
4. Yatta, K. “Teachers’ Perceptions of the Integration of Aboriginal Culture into the High School Curriculum” Alberta Journal of Educational Research Vol. 51 (2005), Issue 1, 50-65
5. CTV.ca News Staff, “PM, First Nations Leaders hold Historic Summit” CTV November 24, 2005, Retrieved December 5, 2005 from
6. Alberta Learning (2003) “First Nations, Métis and Inuit Education Policy Framework: A Progress Report” Retrieved December 5, 2005 from
7. UBC (2005) “Welcome to the Native Indian Teacher Education Program” Retrieved on December 5, 2005 from
8. Mostly Salish Consulting Company (2001) “The Current Position of Aboriginal Support Workers in the BC Education System” Retrieved on December 5, 2005 from