By Jennifer Lewington
SUDBURY – In her orange cotton dress adorned with rows of tinkling metal cones, Grade 1 student Sadie Turner skips to the centre of a large open classroom at Princess Anne PS to perform an Ojibwe “jingle dress” dance for visiting students, teachers and parents. With a student-built wigwam as a backdrop, the six-year-old rhythmically beats a drum, sings a “water song” and displays the nimble footwork she has perfected since the age of two. Moments later, after a kindergarten chorus of “welcome to our coolest wigwam” to the guests, Grade 8 students Alex Nootchtai and Zachary Tyson explain the difference between a wigwam (made from willow or cedar saplings and an integral part of Ojibwe culture) and a teepee (made from buffalo hide). The performances, organized by First Nation and non-First Nation teachers at the school, were held over a three-week period to explain Aboriginal culture and traditions to the Princess Anne community in an informal, fun way — a supplement to Ojibwe language and Native studies, an Aboriginal-infused kindergarten and a weekly drumming class (with community partners) offered by the downtown Sudbury school through the Rainbow District School Board.
Scenes like the one at Princess Anne are playing out across Ontario, which has embarked on a series of initiatives to reverse, as in other provinces, a long history of failure in First Nation, Métis and Inuit (FNMI) education.
“Ontario is nibbling around the edges,” says Harvey McCue, an Ottawa consultant and nationally recognized commentator on First Nations education, and among those demanding system-level reforms. “The province needs to acknowledge that First Nations kids encounter serious difficulties in the provincial schools.”
In Ontario, 72.4 per cent of the province’s 46,000-plus First Nation students (on- and off-reserve) attend provincially-funded schools, as do more than 18,000 Métis and 700 Inuit. According to the 2006 Census, 37.6 per cent of Ontario FNMI aged 15 and older had less than a high school education compared to only 22 per cent of non-FNMI. As well, Aboriginal youth in the province were three times less likely than their peers to earn a university degree.
Inconsistent local efforts, a lack of data, high rates of family mobility and poverty, an absence of provincial mandates, incidents of racism and lingering stereotypes about Aboriginal learners are among multiple barriers to major change.
In Ontario, recent measures to address chronic underachievement date to 2007 when the Ministry of Education introduced a First Nation, Métis and Inuit Policy Framework that, with current funding of $46.2 million this year, encourages school boards to promote student self-identification as a starting point to gather data, add Native language and Native studies courses, develop other curriculum resources, and hire Aboriginal teachers and support workers.
For their part, Ontario faculties of education are expanding efforts to embed Aboriginal content in the curriculum for all teacher candidates — part of a national commitment by deans of education on indigenous education.
Despite a proliferation of initiatives, results to date are uneven. “There’s been a significant level of progress,” observes Pamela Toulouse, a Laurentian University associate professor in education and author of Achieving Aboriginal Student Success.
Professor Toulouse, an Anishnaabe from Sagamok First Nation who has advised provincial and national panels on education reform, warns: “As long as there are First Nation, Métis and Inuit students who don’t see themselves represented in the curriculum, so long as we have many who are dropping out and see their own learning styles and dialects are not being valued in schools, so long as that is happening, it is not equitable at all.”
With little evidence of a system-wide change, First Nations leaders are intensifying calls for greater control over the education of students on and off-reserve. “The success of our students hinges on First Nation control over the education of our children,” says Regional Chief Stan Beardy, head of the 133-member Chiefs of Ontario, which issued a report last year calling for greater First Nation authority over funding, programs and services to put indigenous learners on an equal footing with other learners.
Building rapport takes time, given the lingering legacy of residential schools for First Nation families. Cast in the role of bridge builders between schools and FNMI communities is a new generation of FNMI school leaders in their 30s and 40s who say they hid their identity growing up.
“I remember going to school as a little girl not wanting people to know that I had Native background because somehow I knew what society thought of Native people,” says Rainbow school administrator Kathy Dokis-Ranney, whose late father was from Dokis First Nation. “I was already aware of the stereotype and didn’t want people to think that of me.”
Dokis-Ranney, whose board responsibilities include First Nation, Métis and Inuit education, is among a cadre of front-line role models determined to engage students, teachers and parents in bringing the ministry framework to life in Sudbury public schools.
The city is a microcosm of the challenges for Ontario in coming to grips with First Nation, Métis and Inuit education. Sudbury has the fourth-highest concentration of Aboriginal residents in Ontario while self-identified FNMI make up nine per cent of students in Rainbow schools. By 2031, predicts Statistics Canada, Aboriginal residents could represent 13.2 per cent of Sudbury’s population — more than double the proportion in 2006.
Over the years, Rainbow negotiated tuition agreements with local First Nation bands, but since 2007, when the board began work on its FNMI policy, it has intensified efforts to reach out to communities that send students to the public board. One tool of engagement is an Aboriginal advisory council that includes 11 First Nations whose members give the board feedback on curriculum, hiring practices and school culture.
Dokis-Ranney early on asked students what they needed to succeed in school. Without hesitation, they pleaded for Aboriginal support workers to help with emotional, social and academic issues. Since then, with ministry funding, Rainbow has added four full-time support workers (with additional part-time support), increased its roster of Native language teachers to 11 from two, and hired a First Nations speech-and-language pathologist who works with elementary students on language acquisition and coaches teachers on effective teaching strategies.
With input from its advisory committee, the board is introducing Aboriginal-infused curriculum content so First Nation, Métis and Inuit students see themselves, and others gain knowledge as well. Through pilot projects, the board has experimented with interventions to engage students who could easily slip from school view.
Beyond individual success stories, some Aboriginal leaders want the province to mandate curriculum requirements (now expressed as “opportunities to learn”) that, as in other provinces, require all students to learn about First Nation, Métis and Inuit history, values and culture.
First Nations leaders are of a similar view about the teaching of treaties and other content. “It has to be mandatory,” declares Marianna Couchie, chief of Nipissing First Nation just outside of North Bay. “There are students who don’t understand us and if you scratch the surface, out will come the negative responses about Native people.”
In the meantime, school officials are happy to embrace small victories. At Princess Anne, where she watched the student presentations, Rainbow’s Kathy Dokis-Ranney was cheered that the event rolled out without any directive from the board. “It tells me our schools are getting more comfortable.”
Jennifer Lewington is an award-winning journalist who writes about education and urban issues for publications in Canada and the United States. Her article “The new face of Aboriginal Education” first appeared as the cover story in the March, 2013 edition of Professionally Speaking, official publication of the Ontario College of Teachers