Ontario schools not doing enough to provide aboriginal education: study

TORONTO - Ontario schools aren't doing enough to educate the 82 per cent of aboriginal students who attend off-reserve schools about their cultures and histories, according to a new report released Thursday.

Almost all provincial elementary and high schools have aboriginal students, but 51 per cent of elementary schools and 41 per cent of high schools surveyed don't have aboriginal education opportunities, said the People for Education report.

The Ontario curriculum includes mandatory and optional learning about First Nations, Metis and Inuit histories, cultures and contributions, it said. The government also provides $43 million in additional funding for school boards where there are 7.5 per cent or more aboriginal students.

But funding hasn't kept pace with the rising number of aboriginal students, and many schools seem to assume they only need to offer aboriginal learning if they have a large number of such students, the report said.

The fact that 82 per cent — an estimated 64,000 — of Ontario's aboriginal students attend provincially funded public schools has been ignored for far too long, said executive director Annie Kidder.

The province isn't serving them well and it's not doing enough to educate all students about the country's aboriginal peoples, she added.

"Every single kid should have a really, really strong understanding and knowledge of aboriginal perspectives, and culture and history and relationships," Kidder said.

"And right now they don't. They're not getting that in schools."

Unlike their ancestors who suffered and died in residential schools, today's aboriginal youth should have an education that's not about assimilation, said Association of Iroquois and Allied Indians Grand Chief Gord Peters.

"You need to demonstrate to our children that they're a valuable part of society and they value their values that they're coming from," he said.

"That's the way that we're going to embrace things, and if it was in the core curriculum, we wouldn't be having these kinds of discussions."

If aboriginal students don't get that education, graduation rates will remain at 30 to 35 per cent, he said, which prevents them from finding jobs and improving their lives.

The study found there was a large gap between aboriginal students and others when it came to reaching provincial standards in reading and writing.

"That's the goal, is to be able to help them so that they can experience what most other Ontarians take for granted," Peters said.

Having all students learn about aboriginal history "is the way we need to go," said Education Minister Liz Sandals.

Many aboriginal students experience racism and the best way to stop it is with knowledge, she said.

"If you feel like an outsider in the school, then you aren't going to have a good learning environment," she said.

"And the way that we counteract that is everybody — teachers, other students, everybody — having knowledge of the history of the aboriginal peoples in Canada."

Some schools may not be aware that they have aboriginal students, because many of them may not identify themselves as aboriginal, she said.

The report found that training for teachers came up short, with only a third of elementary and high schools offering professional development for staff around aboriginal issues.

There's no requirement that teacher candidates study aboriginal education, history or culture, it said. The report cited a recent study that found there's a "prevailing and deeply embedded belief" that it's only important for those teacher candidates who intend to work on reserves.

Sandals said that will change as the province moves to extend teachers college to two years.

Ontario's auditor general found last year that the province wasn't checking up on efforts to improve aboriginal education, six years after declaring it a priority, said New Democrat Peter Tabuns.

"If you make something a priority and then you're not monitoring to see whether or not your program's being implemented, it doesn't strike me that it's really a priority," he said.

Schools on First Nations reserves are the responsibility of the federal government, who is proposing changes to bring them up to provincial standards.

The Harper government tabled a draft of the First Nations Education Act late Tuesday that would see Ottawa set and enforce standards for schools on reserves, and wrest temporary control of those that fail to make the grade.

But Thursday's study shows that Ontario isn't much better than the federal government at providing education for aboriginal students, said Peters.