One of the realities of daily news coverage in this world is that bad news tends to dominate the headlines far more than good news. This seems to be especially true when it comes to stories relating to First Nations reserves in Manitoba, and our province’s aboriginal population — whether fairly or unfairly so.
However, one of the truly positive developments over the last several years in western Manitoba has been the growing number of aboriginal high school graduates — a number that continues to grow year after year.
With the graduation of another seven Sioux Valley Dakota Nation High School students last spring, the total number of graduates reached more than 65 since the school’s opening in Brandon at the former Fleming School site.
For Sioux Valley residents, graduation has become a special occasion, a time to celebrate the accomplishments and dedication to education these students have shown in order to earn their diplomas.
“It’s encouraging to see kids succeeding and that’s what we’re trying to shoot for all the time so we’re happy with the work the staff does here,” Sioux Valley Chief Vince Tacan told the Sun earlier this year. “I see the need for nurses, accountants, those kinds of things in our communities so I’m always trying to get the students to look at that as a career choice.”
In recent stories on First Nations education, The Canadian Press and Postmedia have frequently referred to C.D. Howe Institute report that determined nearly half of aboriginal students nationwide fail to get to Grade 12. The same study found Manitoba had the worst record of six provinces with substantial aboriginal populations, with 63 per cent of natives failing to graduate high school.
But Tacan says the problem for First Nations isn’t a lack of interest in accessing education, but rather a lack of funds to do so. Since the Grade 7 to 12 school is given a base amount of funding each year dependent on the amount of students, Tacan said it’s important for community members to understand that if one student drops out, it could affect the rest of the class.
So it’s with high expectations that we welcome the federal government’s recently release plan to reform education for First Nations children in this country.
Under the draft bill, dubbed the First Nation Education Act, band schools would be allowed to be community-operated through First Nations or through an agreement with a province. New standards for qualifications of teach staff, curriculum and graduation requirements would be implemented, and there would be new regulations governing discipline, hours of instruction, class size and transportation.
One of the most contentious aspects of the bill, however, is that it calls for an outside inspector to review school standards and performance every year on native reserves, who would make suggestions for improvements when necessary.
If the inspector finds that “major and persistent problems” aren't being dealt with by First Nations, Ottawa would then have the ability to appoint a temporary official to manage schools, particularly if there are “major risks to students' safety and outcomes.”
The draft bill has upset some aboriginal leaders, who believe First Nations populations have not been adequately consulted on the legislation. Others warn of the government exerting too much control over First Nations, and fear the new act would undermine aboriginal culture and language education, while not providing enough new funding.
We understand the misgivings that First Nations communities have over the government’s plans — considering the history of relations between Canada and aboriginal populations in this country, it’s not surprising that First Nations leaders would be especially touchy over the potential for a paternalistic federal government to dictate terms.
But the draft bill is just that — a draft, and subject to change. The government has called for aboriginal leaders to study its contents and to provide their reaction.
We also note the draft bill would allow native councils to form First Nations education authorities that could hire staff, manage budgets and develop their own curricula, while still meeting provincial standards.
This legislation has the potential to change First Nations education in this country for the better, and we hope aboriginal leaders will take the opportunity to help the federal government make it work.
After all, we want our First Nations communities to succeed too.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition October 24, 2013