In B.C.’s public schools, the graduation rate for Indigenous students is on the rise — 72% of Indigenous students completed high school in 2020-21, up from 66.2% in the 2016-17 school year.
That’s good news. But an April report from non-partisan People for Education organization executive director Annie Kidder outlines some steps that still need to be taken to expand upon and consolidate this success.
The report, entitled “Still Waiting For Truth and Reconciliation,” focuses primarily on the fact that while it has been eight years since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission issued its calls to action, the 13 that specifically address children and youth have not been fully implemented as yet. And none are actually focused on education.
This according to an analysis by the Yellowhead Institute, an Indigenous-led research and education centre based in the faculty of arts at Toronto Metropolitan University.
Kidder’s report is not an exercise in fault finding and emphasizes instead the kind of thing Murray Sinclair, chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, was talking about when he said “education has a key role to play in long-term reconciliation, and changes in our education systems must include improvements in the education of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous students.”
In his preface to the Truth and Reconciliation Call For Action, Sinclair went on to say: “Education is what got us into this mess. We need to look at the way we are educating children. That’s why we say that this is not an Aboriginal problem. It’s a Canadian problem.”
In the 2022-23 school year, Ontario’s Ministry of Education allocated a $120.5-million Indigenous Education Grant, intended to fund “programs and initiatives to support the academic success and well-being of Indigenous students, as well as to build the knowledge of all students and educators on Indigenous histories, cultures, perspectives and contributions.”
In February of 2023, Kidder reports, the Toronto District School Board joined a growing list of school boards in Ontario that are making the shift to replace the compulsory Grade 11 English course with an Indigenous-focused course centred on First Nations, Métis, and Inuit writers.
The course, titled “Understanding Contemporary First Nations, Métis, and Inuit Voices,” is currently offered along with other optional Indigenous-focused courses for secondary students.
The percentage of Ontario secondary schools offering any Indigenous studies courses rose from 40% in 2013 to 72% in 2022, indicating that Ontario secondary schools have made significant progress on incorporating Indigenous-focused courses over the past decade.
In addition to these initiatives, Ontario is providing $3.923 million in project-based funding to the Indigenous Graduation Coach Program, which will enter its third year.
The program is intended to assist school boards in the recruitment of Indigenous graduation coaches to support Indigenous student achievement and well-being at targeted secondary schools
It’s not just a one-way street, says the People For Education report, adding that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action for education “are not only important to support the Indigenous youth in our schools, but also to educate non-Indigenous students about residential schools and Indigenous culture, history, and ways of knowing.”
Significant progress is being made in secondary and post-secondary education opportunities for Indigenous students here in B.C., too.
A February 2020 report from BC Colleges, an association of public post-secondary colleges in the province, points out that colleges have well-established partnerships with Indigenous communities across the province and have built a foundation for successfully supporting Indigenous learners.
At the 10 colleges represented by BC Colleges, 10,720 learners with Aboriginal identity were enrolled during the 2017/18 academic year, according to the Ministry of Advanced Education, Skills and Training.
Indigenous students represent about 10 per cent of the total number of students registered in the college system.
In comparison to non-Indigenous learners, Indigenous learners are more likely to attend colleges (38.2% vs. 23.2%). Indeed, Indigenous learners are more likely to transition to colleges within five years of graduation than non-Indigenous learners (31% vs. 24%).
Perhaps the last words should again come from Sinclair: “Education will create knowledge and from knowledge will come understanding. From understanding will come respect — both self-respect for Indigenous people and mutual respect for all.”
Geoff Johnson is a former superintendent of schools
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