A Thunder Bay Ontario coroner’s inquest report into the deaths of seven First Nations students, issued on June 28, 2016, seemed to inject a sense of urgency into the whole debate over the sad state of Indigenous education. It also gave fresh impetus to public calls for concrete, meaningful changes in First Nations high schools, particularly in northern Ontario. Six months later, my latest Northern Policy Institute report, After the Healing, explores why so little has happened and proposes an immediate action plan.
Going well beyond its strict mandate to rule on cases of death, the five-person jury, presided over by coroner Dr. David Eden, delivered a total of 145 far-reaching recommendations and even set out the laudable goal of building a high school in each of northern Ontario’s mostly small, isolated reserve communities. That alone is a monumental undertaking that would take massive investments and years to achieve.
The state of education on most of Canada’s reserves is dire, but outside observers, including C.D. Howe Institute researchers Barry Anderson and John Richards, tend to reach sweeping conclusions that do not apply to all First Nations-run schools, particularly the two largest Northern Nishnawbe Education Council (NNEC) schools in the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, covering much of northern Ontario.
Over the past seven years, 2009-10 to 2015-16, graduation rates at the two NNEC high schools, Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School (DFCHS) and Pelican Falls First Nations High School (PFFNHS) have risen steadily from 53.6 % to 76.0% this past year. Out of 424 students registered in Grade 12 over that period, 261 (61.5 %) achieved a high school certificate, better than most on-reserve high schools.
In the 2015-16 school year, while the Thunder Bay inquest dominated the news, both DFCHS and PFFNS recorded their highest graduation rates ever, at 64.7 % (33 of 51) and 100 % (24 of 24) respectively.
Given a funding gap of 25 to 30 per cent per student and the adverse media attention, the label of “failing” schools does not seem to square with the facts.
Yet much more needs to be done to immediately improve the quality of education and student life for First Nations students attending Thunder Bay’s Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School and other First Nations-run schools in the Ontario North.
My earlier September 2014 NPI policy paper Picking Up the Pieces supported the full transition to First Nations control of education through Community-School Based Management vested in Indigenous education authorities such as the NNEC.
Investing in First Nations high schools remains the best way to capture the true “Learning Spirit,” to embrace a more holistic, community-based philosophy of lifelong learning, to raise student performance levels, and prepare graduates for healthier, more satisfying and productive lives.
Fixing the problems threatening the very existence of the NNEC First Nations high schools, DFCHS and PFFNHS, is the new imperative. Taking action now will not only ensure that First Nations teens attending NNEC high schools will return home alive, but better prepared for successful lives.
The Thunder Bay Coroner’s Jury bit-off much more than can be digested and implemented in a timely and effective fashion. My report focuses more explicitly on addressing the needs of students making the transition to high school in Thunder Bay, Sioux Lookout, and other northern Ontario towns and cities.
My latest report, After the Healing, presents a five-point action plan, urging policy-makers to:
- close the funding gap for NNEC and NAN schools;
- design, fund and build Dennis Franklin Cromarty transition lodgings to be known as the Student Living Centre;
- re-build and expand student support services to smooth the transition to city/town life;
- establish a Race Relations Commissioner and officers in cities and larger towns with sizable populations of First Nations youth and students; and
- expand and fortify ‘Student Success’ curriculum initiatives based upon Indigenous ways of knowing and learning.
‘Focus, focus, focus’ is now what’s needed as we embark on renewing First Nations education. Fewer and more immediate concrete actions are the best guarantor of a brighter future for First Nations students attending band-operated high schools.
Why is there so much talk and so little action on the First Nations high school education front? Who is coordinating and monitoring the implementation of the Thunder Bay inquest recommendations? After six months, what has changed at Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School, the prime focus of the inquest? Is it because the mere mention of “residential school” (whatever its form and leadership) sends people running off in the opposite direction?