A Deprived Education A Harsh Reality Faced By The Aboriginal Youth

Johnson Angalik, 23, grew up in an isolated native community in the B.C. Interior. He spent his childhood transferring between school on the reserve and when it was closed for a time, a Catholic school in Kamloops where he endured lots of racist. Eventually he dropped out all together.

“I’ve had hard times in my life. I got to the point where I was really isolated in my community. There was no one there for me. So I thought that it was not worth it, I wanted to kill myself,” Angalik said.

After attending an Aboriginal youth conference a few years ago, Angalik realized that his struggles weren’t unique. Isolation and depression are common among Aboriginal youth who grew up on reserve communities like him. Many of the people Angalik met struggled to escape from gang violence and had friends who committed suicide.

Now Angalik is re-enrolled in online school and he is determined to make some real changes to help the community. “I want to help those who are isolated just like I was and there is no point sticking around if I’m not going to do something meaningful,” Angalik said.

Angalik preparing for his upcoming exam (Photo credit: Vera He)

It’s daunting to think about the efforts made on breaking the cycle of poverty, violence and poor education among Aboriginal youth. After decades of negotiations, commissions and protests, Aboriginal children continue to face a fate that should horrify most Canadians.

There has been no lack of report on missing indigenous women, shortage of clean drinking water and many other issues faced by the Aboriginal communities in recent years. Half of First Nation youth live in poverty, with rates as high as 64 per cent of children in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. They are more likely to grow up in communities surrounded with violence and live in overcrowded housing with no clean water. According to Statistics Canada’s violent crime index, nine of Canada’s 10 most violent communities are Aboriginal.

Many Aboriginal youth were pushed toward committing crime due to poverty and violence. Compared to non-native Canadians, native children are seven times more likely to be victims of murder, five times more likely to commit suicide and twice as likely to have an alcohol-related death. The number of Aboriginal teenagers in custody has also rose from 12 per cent in 1997 to one in three today.

“I started to smoke weed since I was 16,” said Inusiq Shoo from Iqaluit, Nunavut who is now 55. “I got so many tickets for smoking weed but I never paid for them.” For him this was so common in his community.

Insuiq Shoo, who recently broke his leg for jaywalk after smoking weed. (Photo credit: Vera He)

Shoo dropped out after two weeks of attending high school and only learned how to read and speak English briefly by himself.

As a well-developed country with a knowledge-based economy, Canada’s score in literacy was only the average of other industrialized countries. According to report by the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), compared to the non-Aboriginal population where 54% of the population is below the benchmark proficiency level, 70% of the Aboriginal population has numeracy skills under the same skills target level.

Former Prime Minister Paul Martin negotiated what became know as the Kelowna Accord, which included measures to reduce inequalities between natives and non-natives — notably in the field of education. However, the 5-billion agreement was never put in place by the Harper government, who was in power since 2006.

In the Harper era, spending on the Aboriginal programs was cut by billions of dollars, including refusal to the Kelowna Accord.

“The Harper government is underfunding Aboriginal schools and depriving First Nations children of any real chance of success,” said Martin during the Assembly of First Nations' annual meeting in 2014,

"How can the government of Canada deprive a group of six-year-olds the same opportunity to learn to read and write as other six-year-olds have?"
Former Prime Minister Paul Martin

Recently the Trudeau government was also accused for not funding enough to the Aboriginal programs as promised. According to CBC News, the Liberal government has committed to spend $2.6 billion over five years— not the promised four. The fund is also heavily back-loaded, with 25 per cent of it not set to place until 2020-21.

According to PIAAC, the lack of improvement in education will result in a growing skills shortage in Canada, which will undermine the workforce ability to remain competitive in the global economy.

“It’s frustrating to think of what the government has been doing,” Angalik said, “Those children living on the reserve don’t have that many years to wait.”

While the government is not doing enough to solve the problem, organizations in the society have started to make some changes. The Red Fox Healthy Living Society has launched new recreational programs to create more opportunities for Aboriginal youth. “The program is designed with a goal to help Aboriginal youth develop the leadership, employment and life skills they need to overcome barriers to success,” said Sarah Coxon, communications manager of the Red Fox Healthy Living Society.

Frontier College, a national literacy organization, started offering Aboriginal Summer Literacy Campus since 2005. They provided free summer camps to more than 6000 Aboriginal children in 2015.

“By offering a fun and supportive learning environment, the camps foster a love of reading that leads to increased confidence and social skills,” said Meredith Roberts, manager of media relations at Frontier College.

Effects of poor education have already shown in statistics. According to Statistic Canada, the employment rate for Aboriginal people with less than a high school diploma fell by 5.5 percentage points to 47.7% from 2008 to 2009, while it’s 79.4% for those who graduated from university. While the unemployment rate for Aboriginals is still five times higher than non-native residents, having a higher education is more likely to get the Aboriginals a job.

Although the residential-school system is gone, it continues to create deep distrust toward education in many Aboriginal communities given its history as a cultural assimilation tool.

Mohawk Institute Residential School

“I don’t learn nothing from school, I learned everything by myself after I dropped out of school,” said Shoo, “What’s the point of going?”

In Angalik’s family his parents don’t value education in schools as much either. “My father went to residential school as a kid and he doesn’t trust the education system,” Angalik said, “He told me he learned more skills out of school which he could make a living.” However, Angalik doesn’t agree with his father’s opinion on education and he is worried about the current education situation in his community.

Children don’t have a reversible childhood, without proper education their lives will likely be driven to a harder path. What the Aboriginal youth need the most, is more attention from the government to have a better education system and sufficient funding. Although Aboriginal people hold a privilege for having free education, it won’t be as important if the system itself is bad.

“If you can give young people the initiative and the opportunity to see it, it’s possible to pull yourself out of it,” Angalik said,

“You don’t have to be condemned from day one just because you were born on a reserve.”

However, for many Aboriginal children the incomplete education system is still the harsh reality they have to face in life and how those in power decide to act on it is still in question.

Created By
Vera He
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Vera He

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