A nation seeks to atone for its aboriginal sin

1st April 2011 at 01:00
Canada: After years of failing the children of indigenous groups, the government says sorry and commits to reform

Faced with entrenched under-achievement by pupils from the country's indigenous populations, Canada's prime minister has pledged to take action to improve their educational prospects.

Currently just 38 per cent of pupils from aboriginal backgrounds - known as First Nations - finish high school and only 8 per cent have college degrees.

Prime minister Stephen Harper has reached out to the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) by promising a better deal. The Conservative leader's sudden interest, while welcome, has come as a surprise.

While the federal government spends $9 billion a year on native people living on reserves, one of Mr Harper's first acts when he became prime minister five years ago was to cancel an accord negotiated by his Liberal predecessor that called for an additional $5 billion to improve aboriginal peoples' living conditions, $1.8 billion of which was earmarked for education.

But last autumn, after a meeting with the AFN's grand chief Shawn Atleo, Mr Harper sent him a letter committing the government to working with First Nations groups to "develop options, including new legislation, to improve the governance framework and clarity of accountability for First Nations education".

While some might have initially dismissed his language as a bureaucratic dodge, a two-day meeting between education ministers, Mr Atleo and other native leaders followed.

The AFN has some key demands that it believes are necessary to improving the education of their children, among them the right to control their own schools.

The Indian Act gives the federal government complete control over on-reserve education. First Nations people believe they must have that power instead - an approach which AFN spokesman Alain Garon says is supported by the auditor general.

In comparison with provincially supported public schools, First Nations schools are drastically under-funded. "Things such as libraries and computers are not deemed 'essential' by the government in funding First Nations schools," says Mr Garon.

Mr Harper's interest in First Nations education follows what many believe to have been his finest moment as prime minister. In June 2008, he apologised for the highly contentious residential school policy. For more than a century, beginning in the 1870s, the government forcibly removed more than 130,000 children from their homes and communities to be raised in government-funded residential schools, many of which were run by the Catholic and Anglican churches.

Thousands of children were sexually abused and beaten for speaking in their native language. In some schools, death rates were as high as 12 per cent per year.

In March 2009, Pope Benedict XVI met with then grand chief Phil Fontaine to express the Church's "sorrow at the anguish caused by the deplorable conduct of some members of the Church" and "encouraged First Nations peoples to continue to move forward with renewed hope". If the Canadian government delivers on its promises to improve education for First Nations children, moving forward with hope will be made much easier.

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