Geoff Johnson: Osoyoos band shows the value of education

In 2016, B.C. graduation rates for aboriginal students are measurably improving, but high-school completion levels for indigenous kids still fall significantly short of the national average for non-aboriginal students.

As indicated by data from B.C.’s Ministry of Education, the number of aboriginal students finishing secondary school in B.C.’s public system has increased steadily from about 54 per cent to 63 per cent over the past six years, but that is still more than 20 percentage points shy of the 84 per cent average for the general population in the province.

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Needless to say, public-school educators are adopting a cautious approach to the news that $4.6 billion over five years has been allotted in the new federal budget for on-reserve First Nations education.

The hesitancy on the part of educators is founded partly in a lack of clarity about how the money will be administered and applied to improving completion rates for on-reserve schools. On reserve, there is often a huge gap where federal legislation and physical and bureaucratic infrastructure should be.

This means that First Nations have to work with a cobbled-together set of policies overseen by Indian Affairs, rather than definitive pieces of legislation that were developed in consultation with First Nations communities.

While off-reserve aboriginal students have made tremendous gains in educational achievement, those attending federally funded on-reserve schools have not done as well.

While 63 per cent of aboriginal students in off-reserve (public) schools graduate from high school, only about 45 per cent graduate from on-reserve schools.

More than half of the federal Liberal government’s promised aboriginal education funding — $2.6 billion — will be allotted to primary and secondary on-reserve education by 2021 in efforts to boost the national graduation rate for on-reserve students.

And so here’s the apparent hitch in the whole plan: At a national level for on-reserve schools, there are no clearly delineated federal regulatory requirements that address how money should be allocated, by whom and to what purpose.

Fortunately, reserve schools in B.C. are in a uniquely better accountability position because of the school-accreditation process authorized by the First Nations Leadership Council and First Nations Education Steering Committee. The process is conducted by the First Nations Schools Association. B.C. also has a provincial voice for First Nations education through the First Nations Education Steering Committee.

Unfortunately, there is no national equivalent, partly because of a toxic mistrust that has long existed between First Nations and the federal government.

More significantly in the light of the huge amounts being promised by the Trudeau Liberals, there is no national federal curriculum for on-reserve schools.

So what has been successful in improving the graduation rate for aboriginal students? No. 1 on the list would be meaningful support for the value of education from First Nations leaders.

Nationally recognized Osoyoos Chief Clarence Louie is one leader who has taken a direct interest in the academic progress of his nation’s kids.

He also stands strongly behind the need for a better education system for First Nations, but with a caveat: “Once you get beyond the fluff about what education is supposed to do for you — make you a better person, more rounded, all that stuff — it’s really about making yourself employable. The more education you get, the better job you’re going to get.”

That’s the message directed to school-age Osoyoos members.

In 2000, the Osoyoos band set a goal of becoming self-sufficient in five years. They are there now, and have more businesses and employment per capita, including a winery, a hotel and a golf course, than any other First Nation in Canada.

A large part of that success has been the chief’s outspoken commitment to education.

Nor has Louie ignored the importance of cultural identity and tradition.

“You’re going to lose your language and culture faster in poverty than you will in economic development,” he has said on more than one occasion.

Most other serious analyses of student success, aboriginal and non-aboriginal, include the role played by non-school factors, those major aspects of a child’s life that send him or her off to school each day, ready to participate and learn.

When a chief like Louie involves himself directly, and when his actions speak even louder than his words, good things happen for First Nations kids.

Geoff Johnson is a retired superintendent of schools.

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