Fixing Aboriginal education: Ottawa's reform legislation falls victim to competing agendas.

AuthorRichards, John

Ottawa published two major Aboriginal policy reviews in the 1960s. One was the infamous "White Paper" presented to Parliament in 1969 by Jean Chretien, at the time Minister of Indian Affairs in Pierre Trudeau's first government. It recommended abolition of the Indian Act and phasing out of reserves in favour of complete integration of First Nations into Canadian society. The White Paper served as a foil for Harold Cardinal's "Red Paper," an early statement on behalf of indigenous autonomy and an expansive interpretation of treaty rights.

The other document, now largely forgotten, was a more nuanced review. The Hawthorn Report, named for the study's director, Harry B. Hawthorn, insisted that policy not be directed at assimilation ("the research on which the Report is based was not directed to finding ways in which Indians might be assimilated"), but it also insisted "that individuals be given the capacity to make choices which include the decision to take jobs away from reserves, play a part in politics, and move and reside where they wish." (1) Central to Hawthorn's vision was expansion of the capacity of individuals, which required provision of high-quality on-reserve social services. Hawthorn predicted that once health care and schools of decent quality were available, many reserve residents would choose to leave the reserve and participate in mainstream society--as equals with other Canadians. He acknowledged that many would not make that choice, and that living on-reserve was an equally valid option.

Bill C-33, the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act, tabled in Parliament in the spring of 2014, was the product of a tempestuous three-year reform project intended to provide a legislative basis for reserve schools across Canada. Over the half-century since Hawthorn wrote, apart from providing cash transfers to reserves, Ottawa has played a very limited role in K-12 education. Since the 1960s individual First Nation councils have, with exceptions and qualifications, managed their respective schools on a stand-alone basis. In effect, Bill C-33 took up Hawthorn's challenge to make reserve-based social programs --schools in this case--of sufficiently high quality that First Nation youth would have "the capacity to make choices."

Bill C-33 was a compromise drafted by the Department of Aboriginal Affairs (AANDC) with the active participation of Assembly of First Nations (AFN) leaders. The provisions of the legislation are pragmatic and, it can be argued, would make First Nation control of their schools more effective. On the other hand, Bill C-33 can be interpreted as an infringement of the absolute treaty right of individual First Nations over education. Such was the case made by Bill C-33's opponents, who argued in the tradition of the Red Paper. The resignation of Shawn Atleo, AFN National Chief during the previous three years, and the

subsequent withdrawal of Bill C-33 illustrate the difficulty of reconciling the Hawthorn and Red Paper agendas.

The census evidence

Relative to the tragedy of residential schools in the first half of the 20th century, policy since 1970 has obviously been an improvement. But it has not lived up to expectations. The gains in education have disproportionately accrued to First Nation individuals living off-reserve and Metis. While education outcomes for these two groups should not invite complacency, they are far superior to those among First Nation members living on-reserve.

The importance of high school completion in predicting whether someone avoids poverty over his or her lifetime is hard to exaggerate. While it is a low rung on the education ladder, it remains the crucial rung for getting a job. Whether someone is identified in the latest census (conducted in 2011) as North American Indian / First Nation, as Metis or as non-Aboriginal, the probability of being employed was below 40 per cent if he or she lacked high school certification. (2) For the three identity groups, it jumped by over 25 percentage points for those with high school certification but no further education. At higher education levels, the probabilities of employment converged for the three groups, and for those with university degrees they were all above 75 per cent.

Figure 1 illustrates high school completion profiles for four groups, by four age cohorts. Ages 20-24 is the youngest cohort to expect high school completion. The statistics are derived from the 2011 census; hence those in the oldest cohort illustrated were born prior to 1965 and all but a few of those who completed high school can be expected to have done so before 1980. Within the non-Aboriginal population, over one in five of those age 45 or older did not complete. For the three younger cohorts high school completion is roughly constant, at 90 per cent. This profile illustrates that, for non-Aboriginal adults below age 45, near-universal high school completion has become the norm. The analogous profile for Metis tracks that for non-Aboriginals, but is roughly 10 percentage points lower for all cohorts.

The story among First Nation cohorts is more complex. Their maximum high school completion rates occur at middle age (the age 35-44 cohort). The middle-age off-reserve high school completion rate approaches 80 per cent, not far below the analogous statistic for Metis. For on-reserve First Nations the middle-age completion rate is well below 60 per cent. The completion rate for the on-reserve age 20-24 cohort is only slightly above 40 per cent. This cohort will presumably increase its education credentials as it ages, but its present high school completion rate is below that for its parents' generation (age 45 or older).

National averages hide substantial...

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