When I hear the stories of Indigenous youth who struggle with the lack of educational resources and the suicides that are taking place due to the plight they face, I feel an extreme sense of anguish and sorrow. Their stories resonate with me on a very deep level and my heart goes out to them, many who are young girls and women who are trying to better themselves, but feel they face insurmountable obstacles both on and off reserve. I sympathize with them and I feel compelled to help them, probably because I struggled all my life to better myself. As a Metis woman who has only recently self-identified, I spent my whole life educating myself the best I could with the resources I had, doing what I could to climb that corporate ladder, and doing everything I could to remove myself from the stigma of being native.
So, for these students who have embraced their ancestry and just want to graduate high school, my heart goes out to them. Especially those who must fly hundreds of kilometers away just to get to the nearest high school. Having a closer look at some of their stories, it’s very clear that one of the issues is a lack of funding. There is a huge gap in Federal funding. As a matter of fact, the disparity in some places is between 20-30%. This means that every dollar that is spent provincially per student equates to $0.70 per First Nation student living on reserve. How can this be?
First Nations school officials say a funding shortfall prevents them from providing additional support to students who must leave their remote First Nations to attend high school in the city, according to a CBC News article on March 14, 2016. Between 2000 and 2011, seven students died — all of them were attending First Nations private schools, funded by the Federal government. So, they want to graduate, but can’t because they don’t have the money and they live in a remote area with no high school. I’ve heard some people say they should just get out of there then. Move to a less remote area. And I think that’s callous thinking. Callous and impractical. Would you, as a youth, move away from your family, on your own, to a community where you had no support system just because it was less remote? Remember how these people got there in the first place…
And some of these schools… many of them are just too small and in deplorable shape. Take Alexis School, for example; Alexis School is an Elementary, Junior and Senior High School all in one, located on the Alexis Indian Reserve located 72 km west of Edmonton. Due to lack of funding, most classes are split between two grade levels. This means there are two teachers teaching two different grades at the same time in the same room, making concentration extremely difficult for many of these students. This school receives 18.5% less than Alberta’s provincially funded schools. There is clearly a serious gap between what the schools on the reserve receive and what the public schools receive.
Years of underfunding mean many programs that other schools offer get missed, such as music, drama, and art. Underfunding also means teachers get paid less. Aglace Chapman Education Centre located 600 km north of Thunder Bay, Ontario has a problem keeping teachers. The teachers quit abruptly, causing the school to go on hold. You’ve got youth ready and willing to go to school, but there’s no school because there’s no one to teach them. And when it is in operation, the education authority only receives two-thirds of the funding of provincial schools, so the school can only afford to provide classes to grade 10. There are 300 students from ages 4-18 sharing this one school, whose foundation is crumbling around them, literally and figuratively.
These are just a few examples of the ensuing problems created by a lack of Federal funding for First Nations on reserve. According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, suicide is the second leading cause of death globally for Indigenous youth aged 15-29. Across Canada, suicides amongst Indigenous youth are five times higher than non-Indigenous youth. And many Indigenous people in Canada think about suicide more than non-Indigenous Canadians, both on and off reserve, and, in particular, women.
In Uashat Mak Mani-Utenam, an Innu community of 3,400, 44 people committed suicide in 21 years, between 1994 and 2015. Two-thirds of those over 15 years of age have not completed high school and another two-thirds are jobless. And then there’s Attawapiskat First Nation, a community of 2,000 people located in Northern Ontario, plagued by suicides for decades.
Some say the Indian Act is to blame, a law that describes two kinds of people: Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals, labeling Aboriginals as wards of the state, deeming them incapable and unfit. This labeling has created a deep sense of discontent amongst those who feel they fall under this label.
So, a lack of educational resources, as in teachers, facilities, and dollars for Indigenous Canadians creates an education crisis and the Federal Government with its Indian Act does further harm by teaching discrimination and instilling a sense of destitution. In a report issued by Auditor General Carol Bellringer in November 2015, she speaks of finding systemic “racism of low expectations” in BC public schools towards Indigenous students, based on “preconceptions or biases stemming from social attitudes.”
With an Indigenous graduation rate of just 62% compared to non-Indigenous students who graduate at an 87% rate in BC, something serious needs to be done — but, what exactly? More money is required, that is a given. However, more money will not cure the lack of trust Indigenous peoples feel towards the government, in the wake of residential schools. In a report issued by the C.D. Howe Institute in January of 2016, “The diversity of viewpoints among First Nation leaders and the often poorly informed positions advanced in Parliament mean that legislative reserve-school reform has become a Sisyphean exercise.”
“A prerequisite to improving reserve schools is to acknowledge First Nations’ legitimate distrust of government, rooted in Canada’s efforts to dismantle Aboriginal languages and cultures, in particular through residential schools,” reads the report.
The feelings of hurt and betrayal run deep. This is one issue that is going to take some time to be resolved, with many still living the effects. And so, if we shift our attention back to the money, it doesn’t resolve all our issues, however, it will help. I believe Indigenous peoples need more money for education. The cure for poverty is education. Education dollars are needed for school building inspections to improve the schools if they require more space or updating. A school whose foundation is crumbling would not be acceptable in the public-school system, so why is it allowed in a First Nations community?
If more money was available for Indigenous schools, they would be able to offer better salaries for teachers, which may keep teachers in the communities, and could attract more teachers to remote communities. More funding could also provide more distance learning opportunities for remote communities —on reserve and off reserve.
At the very least, let’s close the gap of funding that currently exists between public schools and Indigenous schools.
And while we’re educating Indigenous communities, let’s also educate the non-Indigenous peoples of Canada. Creating a shift in the minds of all Canadians to that of victor from victim will require some very creative collaboration. From everyone. Many hands make light work.