For Aboriginal people education is the ‘new buffalo’

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Malinda S. Smith, Canadian Federation for Humanities and social sciences 
Vice-president, Equity Issues

This entry is part of the Equity Issues Portfolio’s series on Indigenizing the academy and Indigenous education.

We laud ourselves for supporting education of children in Afghanistan, while First Nations children get 60 to 80 per cent of government education investment received by non-Aboriginal children here.

Canada is celebrated for its contributions to human rights: a beacon of hope for immigrants, a safe haven for refugees, a country of high quality of life. Yet when it comes to the experiences of First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities, we are hard pressed to deal with a blind spot that has been with us throughout our history.

Canada was a leading force in the 1948 UN Declaration on Human Rights, but denied status Indians the right to vote in federal elections until 1960. Today, Canada is in the top 10 countries on the UN Human Development Index, but First Nations communities ranked 68th, reflecting structural inequities in access to education, housing and clean water.

We laud ourselves for supporting education to children in war-torn countries like Afghanistan, yet education for First Nations, Inuit and Métis is chronically underfunded. Aboriginal children receive 60 to 80 per cent of that which non-Aboriginal counterparts receive. According to the 2006 Census, 60 per cent of First Nations and 75 per cent of Inuit students do not complete high school. While off-reserve status and Métis fare better, there is a growing education gap.

These statistics are just part of current social realities. Aboriginal people have shorter life expectancy, have more chronic health problems, and are over-represented in the criminal justice system, making up 20 per cent of the federal inmate population.

Given these challenges, why do Aboriginal communities, particularly Aboriginal children remain largely invisible in Canadian public life and policy priorities?

In a Big Thinking lecture at the 2011 Congress of the Humanities and the Social Sciences in Fredericton, Aboriginal author and former lieutenant governor James Bartleman explored the troubling and troublesome invisibility of Aboriginal children and the devastating implications for us all. And in his book, As Long as the Rivers Flow, dedicated to those who committed suicide as a result of their residential school experiences, Bartleman conveys an ethical, emotional and intellectual urgency to make visible society's blind spot towards the plight of Aboriginal youth and communities.

What are we to make of the fact that a distinctively Canadian human tragedy unfolded in plain sight of one generation after another? However well-intentioned, it was, federal legislation sent more than 150,000 Aboriginal children to residential schools. There, they often were abused, neglected, denied seeing their families, or experiencing their communities, cultures and languages.

In June 2008, the Canadian government acknowledged the error and intergenerational trauma of the policy through an apology in the House of Commons. And, headed by Justice Murray Sinclair, the world's first Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) dedicated to the experiences of children has been tasked with developing a historical record of the stories of residential school survivors.

Coming to terms with the past includes recognizing that the suffering experienced by residential school survivors is not simply a collection of individualized or isolated symptoms; it manifests itself in the destruction of individual and collective identities and in the loss of language, cultural mooring and traditional ways of life. While the TRC hopes for healing through truth-telling, this will be no easy feat, for it requires big thinking, bold policies and socially innovative solutions.

So what is to be done? Aboriginal education must be a key priority. Sometimes longstanding challenges can seem so big, so intractable, that people throw up their hands, uncertain of where to begin. But this is not where we are. We are in an historic moment characterized by remarkable social policy consensus. While we cannot put all of our eggs in one policy basket, Aboriginal education is recognized as the priority to help level the playing field and to lifting children out of disparities and Aboriginal people out of the conditions of systemic inequities.

Aboriginal elders often refer to education as the ‘new buffalo’. In a recent book, The New Buffalo: The Struggle for Aboriginal Post-Secondary Education in Canada, Blair Stonechild, an Indigenous scholar and survivor of the Qu’Appelle Indian Residential School at Lebrat, argues that education is the means by which First Nations, Inuit and Métis will rebuild healthy families, reclaim the cultural and linguistic vibrancy of Aboriginal communities, pursue sustainable economic development and achieve self-government.

Among the most eloquent advocates of Aboriginal education is Shawn Atleo, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, who has made a passionate plea to all governments, education institutions, and private and public sector organizations to support his vision of Aboriginal education initiatives as the foundation for growth for First Nations communities. For Atleo, this is an urgent moment in which we all needed to understand the context and the choices in which Aboriginal peoples and non-Aboriginal peoples can move forward, together.

When Chief Atleo recently addressed scholars, citizens and leaders in Fredericton, he recounted complaining bitterly about Grade 11 algebra, which he doubted he could ever pass. His father responded, "You have what you say," adding, "There is no easy way. There is the hard way or the harder way." Achieving equity in Aboriginal education will be hard to be sure, but consistently ignoring it as we have done is definitely the harder way.

An earlier version of this blog was published on

Malinda S. Smith is an associate professor of Political Science at the University of Alberta and vice-president, Equity Issues, at the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences. 


Equity Matters


Nice work... Nice metaphor... Education really is our hope for the future, and the idea of this site is excellent.