Aboriginal Education in Canada


Cause for Concern 

According to their parents, lack of education is the most serious problem facing aboriginal children living on reserves. A recent federally commissioned Survey of First Nations People Living on Reserves found that education was seen by 36 percent of respondents as the most pressing problem facing their young people.

They have reason for concern. Only 37 percent of the 117,000 Aboriginal students living on reserves in Canada will graduate from high school, less than half the national average. Some 20 percent of reserve children eligible to attend elementary and secondary schools are not enrolled, while 18 percent of those who do attend will drop out before completing Grade nine.1

But students on reserves are only part of the story. In British Columbia, while on-reserve student numbers increased only marginally from 10,796 to 11,498 from 1995 to 2001, the number attending public schools increased about 40 percent, from 24,270 to 35,569. Unfortunately, their academic results are equally bleak.

Provincial FSA tests2 in Grades 4, 7, and 10 in the years 2000 to 2002 show that literacy levels for Aboriginal students remained in the 50 percent range while those for other students averaged in the high 70 to low 80 percent range. Similarly, high school grade-to-grade transition rates were better for non-Aboriginal students with 78% percent graduating, compared to 42% of Aboriginal students.

Concern about the schooling of Aboriginal children is not new. Since requests for the provision of schools are found in numerous early treaties, it seems clear that indigenous people wanted their children to have an opportunity to acquire the technologies and knowledge of the newcomers. They wanted to select from the best that Europeans had to offer, to adapt and incorporate those things they considered valuable into their own considerable stores of knowledge. Unfortunately, what they got was very different.

Education or Assimilation?

In the early 1600’s, “native American children were sent to France to be educated at public expense. It was assumed that on their return home they would prove influential in having their communities adopt French

ways.”3This marks the beginning of the attempt to use education as a tool to assimilate aboriginal people into the culture of the colonizers -a policy that continued unabated, though unsuccessfully, for the next 400 years.

In 1857, the Legislature of The United Province of Canada passed an Act for the Gradual Civilization of the Indian Tribes in the Canadas. Designed to protect Indian lands from encroachment, it also offered enfranchisement and financial benefits to Aboriginal people who agreed to be assimilated into the dominant white culture. With Confederation in 1867, the authority to legislate on matters relating to “Indians and Lands Reserved for Indians” passed to the federal government (section 91, sub-section 94). In 1876, this authority was used to pass the Indian Act, amended in 1894 to require the compulsory schooling of all Aboriginal children.

The instrument chosen to implement this policy was the residential school. The first residential schools opened in the 1880’s, and the last one closed in 1988. Government funded, they were largely run by churches. It is clear from the extensive literature and first-hand accounts of their students, that their primary mission was the eradication of Aboriginal culture. Severe punishments were inflicted on students who used their native languages and for any behaviour seen as “pagan”. The impact on Aboriginal communities was devastating, as children were taken from their homes, often forcibly, for compulsory schooling at these institutions. Negative attitudes about school continue in the reserve communities who still suffer from generations of lost parenting skills and cultural knowledge.

Jurisdictional Issues

While Confederation gave the federal government authority over Indians, authority over education fell to the provinces. As the residential schools closed, federally operated schools opened on reserves and tuition agreements were negotiated with provinces. Meanwhile, Aboriginal leaders were voicing their concerns, stating “Indian parents must have full responsibility and control of education” and demanding that education must be based on the values, philosophy, and rights of First Nations people.4In response, the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs moved from providing educational services to funding Bands to operate their own schools or negotiate educational service agreements with school districts or independent providers. From a single school in 1969, Band-managed schools have grown to enrol 60,000 students in 2002. Provincial schools were attended by 46,000 reserve students, 1,700 students were in federal schools, and INAC spent just under one billion dollars for their education.5

Common Performance Measures Lacking

While it is clear that Aboriginal students are not sharing the educational achievements of other Canadian children, the reasons for this are difficult to discern. Jurisdictional issues have created a far from level playing field and a patchwork of delivery. While INAC requires Aboriginal schools to meet provincial standards of curriculum and teacher certification, they receive only about 60 percent of the funds available to provincial schools.6 Operating as separate entities, Band schools lack designated money for assessment of achievement and many do not participate in provincial testing programs, preferring an holistic approach to student evaluation.7Further, provincial jurisdictions do not collect comparable performance data for students; currently, B.C. is the only province able to separate Aboriginal student data from the general population.

The Auditor General’s Report, 2002, clearly delineates INAC’s responsibility to ensure the quality of the education it finances for Aboriginal students. This report advises the Department to “…articulate its role in education, to develop and use appropriate performance measures and to improve operational performance.”8 For the Department to demonstrate accountability for results, the report advises the development of performance indicators which, “should reflect not only processing inputs, such as the resources used in providing education, but also outputs and outcomes, such as the number of students served and their educational achievement…”9

Promising Practices

Despite such complex jurisdictional and resource issues, it is encouraging to note that the performance gap is slowly beginning to close. Noteworthy partnerships have developed in British Columbia following the 1989 Sullivan Commission on education. The province instituted targeted funding to improve education for Aboriginal students in 1994, and Aboriginal communities and school districts negotiated Local Education Agreements (LEA) as to how these funds would be spent. The 25 agreements now in place between School Districts and Bands assign the $950 per student (2002-03) in additional funding to Aboriginal language and culture programs, Aboriginal support services, and programs designed in agreement with local Aboriginal communities to improve Aboriginal performance in reading, writing, and mathematics and to increase attendance and graduation rates. Since the program began, provincial tests show improving literacy, writing, and mathematics scores and the number of Aboriginal students graduating from high school has doubled.

Some lighthouse Band-operated and provincial schools are emerging, where parents and communities and dedicated school staffs are improving the educational prospects for Aboriginal children. A new study commissioned by SAEE will provide ten case studies from across the western provinces and Yukon, for insights into ‘best practice’. The research is being conducted by principal investigator, Dr. David Bell. Members of the research team include Dr. Sheila Rose (Yukon College), Dr. Kirk Anderson (University of Saskatchewan) Terry Fortin, who chaired the Alberta Review of Native Education Policy, and Keith Spencer, District Principal for Aboriginal Programs in School District #28 (Quesnel).

Using interviews, focus groups, and on-site observations, the researchers will examine governance and leadership, partnerships with parents and communities, student characteristics, school climate and trust, curriculum and programs especially literacy approaches, native language and culture, assessment practices, school and community outcomes, and identified success factors. Their report, Sharing Our Success , will be available in

1 Statistics taken from Exhibit 4.2, Report of the Auditor General of Canada, April 2000, and How Are We Doing , a report on Aboriginal
Student Performance, B.C. Aboriginal Education Website at http://www.bced.gov.bc.ca/abed/perf2002.
2 Annual Foundation Skills Assessments in reading, writing and numeracy.

3 Neil MacDonald & Ginny Hasselfield (eds.) 1997. The MacDonald Summary of Aboriginal Issues Today, Cross Cultural Communications International. Winnipeg.
4 National Indian Brotherhood paper, Indian Control of Indian Education, (1972) p.27.
5 Report of the Auditor General of Canada, (April 2000), Section 4.8
6 Marie Matthew (2000).The Cost of Quality First Nations Education.
7 Nathan Matthew & Barbara Kavanagh (June 1999). Meeting 0ur Expectations: Considering a Framework for the Assessment of First Nations Schools. FNESC. pp. 17,18.
8 Report of the Auditor General of Canada, (April 2000), Section 4.1
9 Ibid. Section 4.51