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Aboriginal Education and Youth Leadership

On December 13 + 14 in Ottawa The Circle on Philanthropy and Aboriginal Peoples in Canada launched its Collaborative Circle on Education and Youth Leadership. 90 people attended – teachers, community leaders, youth,  philanthropists, government representatives, students, advocates –  to cultivate the dialogue in the country around Aboriginal education, explore future collective engagement on Aboriginal education, and foster and strengthen connections between diverse parties toward improvement of educational opportunities for Aboriginal children and youth. Through presentations, interactive sessions, and a number of “world cafes,” 5 key themes emerged:

1. There is an urgency and magnitude to the challenge.

While the Circle is deliberately forward-looking, with an eye to positive future possibilities and potential, it was impossible to discuss Aboriginal education in the absence of recognizing the non-system that is Aboriginal education. When compared to mainstream schools, First Nations schools receive minimal support, teachers in Aboriginal schools are typically paid 30% less than in the non-Aboriginal system, and the discrepancies go on and on. “Communities are given an impossible choice. Parents have to ask ‘do we want our children to go to a First Nations school with no equipment, books, computers, resources or supports, or enter the provincial system and endure systemic racism where they don’t learn our culture?’ This is a decision any parent would be horrified to have to make.”

2. Aboriginal education is a national issue not an Aboriginal issue.

There is a history in Canada of relegating Aboriginal issues to the fringe. Poor living conditions, lack of clean drinking water, education devoid of a cultural narrative or context – these are all issues that are easily deemed “Aboriginal issues” with little or no connection to the rest of the country and its non-Aboriginal populations. There was strong consensus at the launch of the Collaborative Circle on Education and Youth Leadership that the problems inherent in Aboriginal education are not just about Aboriginal peoples but about Canada and who and what we are as a nation. Whether from a moral, economic, social, or environmental point of view, any issues affecting Aboriginal peoples in Canada affect the whole country.

“This is a national priority akin to violence against women. It’s not an Aboriginal issue but a Canadian issue. All young people have the same potential to contribute to our lives and to this country.”

3. Strong leadership and youth voices are vital.

One of the strongest themes coming out of the two days in Ottawa was the importance of leadership from chiefs, principals, and teachers, to – most importantly – youth who have significant power to affect and shape their futures. “I hope young people participate in the process because they have huge power. There are a lot of young people in the system and they have strong opinions on what they want. There is no question there is enormous power there.” Youth are ready and engaged and simply need ways to insert their voices into the halls of power and systems of governance in a real way with helpful guidance.

4. Aboriginal education needs to be culturally appropriate.

Aboriginal education has far more success when it’s delivered in the context of language and culture. “Where there are First Nations secondary and tertiary supports, the results seem to follow. The more we can build First Nations structures, the better students and schools will do.” There is a legacy of disconnect that is starting to wane as evidenced in certain jurisdictions, for example at Yukon College where culturally-based education is a key component of their strategy with a very strong teacher training program focused on hiring First Nations teachers and incorporating language, traditional intelligence, and traditional knowledge.

“The kids want to know aspects of their culture and their language. We thought they wanted to talk about jobs but it was who they are – their language and identify –  that they are really concerned about. When you see young people get the education they need, you see it impacts them in a profound way.” 

5. It’s time to move forward and strengthen action and impact.

A question posed to the participants was “What ways have we experienced disruptive influences and what are the creative ways to build community again?” In other words, how to we move forward and strengthen action and impact? First, collaborate. Participants agreed that collaboration is a critical ingredient to any action to advance Aboriginal education across the country.

Second, co-create. Consultation often only happens in the very final stages, or at the lowest level, of a process. Aboriginal groups tend to be consulted almost as an afterthought, not at all levels of decision-making processes. The National Panel on First Nation Elementary and Secondary Education’s report put forward the idea of co-creation – quite distinct from consultation – in developing new education-focused legislation. “We did recommend legislation, structures, tracking success, and adequate funding based on needs. But most importantly, we recommended that it all be co-created which is  a new idea for legislation development. It would push both parties beyond their current thinking. Legislation in Canada has never been created by more than one party. It’s difficult but not impossible. Consultation is not co-creation – both parties need to sit down together and create legislation that makes sense for everyone.”

Third, be accountable. “Notice in the materials the government has circulated regarding the legislation process. It talks about accountability for money received, but financial accountability is only one part of it. What about sustainable, predictable, adequate funding? What about accountability for teachers to be respectful of culture and traditions?” We need to engender better mutual accountability with and amongst each part of the system, and especially to Aboriginal students, across a multiplicity of accountability measures. 

Finally , innovate. We can’t keep throwing the same solutions at old problems. If they haven’t worked before, it’s unlikely they’ll work in the future without a new approach or different mechanisms of design and implementation. For example, shift money from social services to economic development, look at including skills development training for parents when they drop their kids off at school, integrate services within one building like schools and health complexes, recreational facilities and others, promote and support social entrepreneurship in the youth sector, and explore new models of capitalization and funding for schools now. This is just the beginning.

“We need to experiment, learn from failure, and stand up next time and do it better.”

For the full report, click here