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First Nations Higher Education Aspirations in Canada

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Thursday, January 21, 2010

Tyrone McNeil, President of the First Nations Education Steering Committee, BC
Guest Contributor

2009 marked the twentieth anniversary of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.  This anniversary affords us all an important opportunity to think about the rights of our children in Canada – all of our children, including First Nations children.

In particular, the UN Convention reminds us that all children are entitled to receive an education that will promote their general culture and enable them to develop their abilities, their sense of moral and social responsibility, and to become contributing members of society.

Let’s think about whether Canada is living up to that commitment. To begin, here are some numbers.

•    3 out of 177. That is Canada’s ranking in the Human Development Index (HDI),  a widely used United Nations standard to measure a country’s achievements in three basic aspects of human development: health, knowledge, and a decent standard of living.

•    68 out of 177. That’s the ranking of Canada’s First Nations communities using the HDI.

Here are some other numbers to think about.

•    Less than half of Aboriginal students in British Columbia currently graduate within six years of entering high school. Over 80% of non-Aboriginal students graduate in that time frame.

•    Only 3% of First Nations people have a university degree, compared to 18% of the broader Canadian population.

•    First Nations-run schools in BC receive approximately 17% less tuition funding than public schools; special education services alone are underfunded by about $4.5 million.

•    Subject to a strict 2% funding cap increase since 1996, post-secondary education funding for First Nations learners has been steadily eroded by inflation and rising student expenses.  At the same time, the First Nations population has grown 29% and more and more employers demand solid post-secondary credentials.

So what exactly do those numbers mean?  To me, they mean that the immense potential of First Nations children and young people is being lost, not only to First Nations communities but to all Canadians.

We know that education is the key to lifting our children and communities out of the disparities caused by our country’s colonial history.  And First Nations have been clear:  we are fully committed to ensuring that our children have access to the highest quality educational services possible.

What can we do to make that a reality?  Where do we go from here?

Maybe back to 1972.  That’s when First Nations collectively published a policy statement called Indian Control of Indian Education.  That paper, which was endorsed by the federal government of the time, outlined a vision of a future in which First Nations would control the education of their people and the federal government would live up to its fiduciary obligations to those students – including providing adequate and sustainable funding for First Nations education.  Indian Control of Indian Education also asserted the critical importance of First Nations being involved in the design and delivery of educational services in public schools. That commitment reflects the fact that we know best what our children need to succeed, and we are willing to do everything we can to ensure meaningful, appropriate programming for all children.

Today, First Nations still believe that successful education reforms need to be deeply rooted in the vision laid out almost 40 years ago.

You may be wondering if these issues have anything to do with you.  Why should you care?  Isn’t this a problem for First Nations people to worry about themselves?  If those questions reflect your thinking, I encourage you to consider the following quotation from a recent report from UNICEF’s 2009 Canadian Supplement to the State of the World’s Children Report.

Aboriginal children are among the most marginalized children in Canadian society. Despite some advances, in almost any measure of health and well-being, Aboriginal children are at least two or three times worse off than other Canadian children. … It is time to do more to ensure that Aboriginal children have the same services and chances for fulfilling lives as other Canadians. We should care  because:

•    In Canada, under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, we have agreed that it is every child’s right – without discrimination – to enjoy the highest attainable standard of health.

•    As a country, we are only as strong as our most vulnerable citizens – our children. Each of them has the right to and deserves the very best we can give. Families and communities need to be supported to raise children who will develop to their fullest potential – potential that will define our success as a nation.

Tyrone McNeil is a member of the Stó:lō Tribal Council and President of the First Nations Education Steering Committee, a non-profit society directed by representatives of First Nations communities across British Columbia. Email:  tyrone@fnesc.ca.

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