Aboriginal Education, Yes or No

Posted on August 27, 2012

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First Nations education in the city, pt. 1

The question got asked, Should we open a school in Vancouver for Aboriginal students?  It became obvious to me right away that it was a question with no meaningful short answer.  There are too many questions and considerations behind that issue which we have to get past first.

Like, is there any justification for such schools in the first place?

At one level, that’s an easy one.  No one asks whether France or Germany have the right to open their own schools to educate their own people.  No one questions whether jurisdictions like Quebec or British Columbia have such a right.  Educating your own people in your homeland strikes most of us as a human right so fundamental—like the right to breathe—that it needs no justification.

And Canada, may I point out, is the homeland of the First Nations.  We’re not talking about immigrant rights here, although, frankly, I have no theoretical problem with those either.

An Aboriginal right to educate their own people also clearly fits within the category of self-government, however that right is supported under s.35 of the Constitution Act, 1982, which protects existing Aboriginal rights.

There is also a right to an education enshrined within the schoolhouse clauses of the Numbered Treaties, which have been incorporated into Canada’s constitution.  These rights, given free to other Canadians, were purchased by the First Nations in exchange for vast stretches of their land and resources.  Ironically, because the original clauses are silent about who gets to direct the education purchased in the treaties, the government and the churches used them to inflict residential schools on five generations of First Nations children.

Residential schools, by the way, were no more “schools for Aboriginal students” than prisons are institutions for prisoners.  You put Aboriginal students and/or prisoners into these institutions, yes, but it’s the people outside of them who are being served.

Residential schools were operated by people alien and hostile to Aboriginal people who ran them as cultural re-education camps “to kill the Indian in the child.”  Residential schools were involuntary radiation therapy for Indianness, taking the healthy and destroying it, leaving generations of Aboriginal Canadians and hundreds of First Nation communities with unhealed scars.

While serving up a third-rate education.

Let’s be clear.  Just as the fundamental difference between a prison and a home is in who’s in charge of the keys, the fundamental problem with residential schools was who ran them.  If the schools had been controlled and managed by Aboriginal people from the beginning, they could not have become so toxic.  Even the right to withdraw their children at will, a right denied to the First Nations by the law, would have forced these institutions to improve.

Far from being an argument against First Nations-focused education, residential schools are in fact the first crucial line of evidence that whitestream Canada has always been peculiarly bad at educating First Nations.  The destructive and racist legacy of residential schools continues to haunt Aboriginal communities a generation after the last of these schools was closed.  This legacy only strengthens, it does not weaken, the moral right of First Nations to an education system not hostile to Indianness.

Residential schools left the Aboriginal community not only damaged and dysfunctional, not only profoundly uneducated and miseducated, but also profoundly ambivalent towards education itself.

On one hand, you’ll encounter no shortage of public statements from various Aboriginal individuals and bodies paying lip service to the ideal of education.  Most Aboriginal children have heard similar statements from their parents and grandparents.

“You need an education.  You have to go to school.”

Yet this has to be balanced against statements on the other hand, other encounters, closely associating education with Whiteness, as if somehow being poorly educated was the Indian way.

Many Aboriginal professionals have had encounters with less educated Aboriginal people where they were accused of going apple, red on the outside, white in the middle.  Some of these professionals admit that there is substance to the accusations.  Some talk about putting aside their Aboriginal culture in order to go to law school and practice law, for instance.  They admit that the study of law philosophically makes sense in whitestream culture but not their own.  To get an education, therefore, really is to go White.

And, mind, just so everybody understands, going White is not intrinsically a good thing.  Surrendering one’s culture and identity can sometimes do major damage to a personality.  Aboriginal people put up with it because they have to, because education is a means to an end, a way to join and succeed in whitestream culture and the whitestream economy, for which, in the education system that now exists in Canada, an Aboriginal person simply has to pay an extra cultural price.

A special soul tax for Aboriginal people only.

There may not be much anyone can do about the cultural hazards of going to law school given the cultural nature of the subject-matter.  But that caveat doesn’t necessarily apply to schooling in general.  An Aboriginal-focused education can be a much more welcoming education for Aboriginal people.

When your education acknowledges who you are as a person—and there is hardly anything more fateful to a person’s life than being born Aboriginal in Canada, so, yes, it’s likely to come up—then you are more likely to assume education as a natural part of your life.  A strong, relevant curriculum can have a transformative effect on an Aboriginal person’s education, and on their attitude towards education.

I have seen it myself.

When I worked for the Open Learning Agency, it had a relationship with a number of Aboriginal adult education learning centres around the province.  The OLA provided curriculum materials and some level of accreditation.  The centres provided learning spaces and teachers.

While I was there, the OLA had no actual Aboriginal curriculum to sell.  Later on, coming in through the back door as independent contractor, I was able to design and co-author two inter-related Aboriginal studies courses for them, which OLA then started making available to the First Nations learning centres.

Almost immediately they began to get reports back from the teachers at the learning centres—some of whom were White and initially skeptical about these materials—explaining how previously unmotivated students were suddenly taking an interest in their schoolwork.  All their school work, not just the one course.  About students previously ashamed of their very Indianness who began showing pride in their culture—with a matching rise in motivation and self-esteem.

Pride brings success and an Aboriginal-centred education brings pride.  It also sends the message that education is not just a White thing.

I saw similar result when I taught at the Institute of Indigenous Government.  It was an outcome you could photograph.  I remember at the beginning of every year the new students waiting in the hall at orientation, tentative, nervous, unsure of themselves, standing alone or in small groups, hardly able to even lift their voices above a whisper.

By the end of the year, the same students were noisy, opinionated and self-confident, standing straight, making jokes.  Uppity, you might say, but standing together.

They owned that education.  You couldn’t have convinced a single one of them that being First Nations and being educated was a contradiction of terms.