Archive for the ‘Indigenous Schools’ Category

A sixteen-year-old Nova Scotia high school student, Emma Stevens, has taken flight with her Mi’kmaw language version of the Beatles classic, Blackbird. It’s beginning to look like a real-life recreation of A Star is Born. Since the first performance was posted on You Tube on April 25, the beautiful and haunting cover of Paul McCartney’s song has been seen or heard more than one million times. She has performed at a UN Indigenous Peoples conference in Nairobi, Kenya, and McCartney has sung her praises.  An editorial in The Chronicle Herald urged all Nova Scotians to log in and catch her performing the song.

Surveying the initial world-wide media coverage, there was little or no acknowledgement or recognition that Emma’s talent was nurtured and developed in a Mi’kmaw school in Nova Scotia’s Eskasoni First Nation. Only now are we beginning to see that a student performing in her native language with full musical accompaniment did not happen overnight. Her band music teacher, Carter Chiasson, was an inspiration and supported her at every stage and the video was shot by Grade 12 Multimedia course students.

Without diminishing Emma’s amazing achievement, it was also made possible by the teaching, mentoring and support she found at Allison Bernard Memorial High School, the jewel in the autonomous, Indigenous-run, Mi`kmaw Kina`matnewey (MK) network of schools. She is, after all, the product of a Mi’kmaw language music program in a school outside the public school system in Nova Scotia.

Her breakout success is, in many ways, another example of recent achievements that have catapulted Nova Scotia’s First Nations to the forefront in the national movement for Indigenous control over education. It’s been forty years since the first Mi’kmaw- English bilingual education program was established at Potolek, known then as Chapel Island, and twenty-three years since the formation of the MK, a First Nation education authority managed by the Mi`kmaq and funded by the federal Department of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs.

Emma’s high school is one of the better-known MK schools, operating in twelve of the province`s 13 Mi`kmaw communities, and enrolling some 3,000 students province-wide. Mi’kmaw schools like Allison Bernard Memorial High School have significantly raised graduation rates for First Nations students. While the proportion of Canadian on-reserve adults under 25 with a high school diploma barely rose (from 25 to 30 per cent) from 1996 to 2006, Atlantic Canada bucked that trend, rising from 55 per cent to 65 per cent. By 2016-17, some 89.6 per cent of Grade 12 students in MK schools completed their graduation year.

Mi’kmaw band schools reported graduation rates tend to be inflated because they are based upon Grade 12 completion rates rather than the proportion of students entering grade 9 or 10 who secure a high school diploma. Even so, the rise in academic attainment levels is real and a clear sign of the enormous potential of First Nations-run community schools to change students’ educational outcomes and life chances.

The recent success of Mi’kmaw schools has not gone unnoticed. Former Toronto Globe and Mail Education reporter Jennifer Lewington looked closely at the Mi’kmaw model and observed in a 2012 Education Canada article that Mi’kmaw student success was “winning national attention as a possible model for First Nation self-governance in education.”

Schools like Emma’s take a more holistic view of learning and achievement and this is reflected in Mi’kmaw arts and music programs. First Nation Elders and scholars espouse a different and broader conception of learning, drawing upon insights from the First Nations Holistic Lifelong Learning Model, advocated by First Nations scholar Marie Battiste.

Teachers, principals, parents, families, and communities are all mentors and nurturing guides responsible for their children’s achievement in all aspects of lifelong learning. One example is the use of the ‘Talking Circle’ to discuss and resolve issues, respecting that tradition in Mi’kmaw culture and spirituality.

Emma’s school lies at the heart of Eskasoni First Nation and its annual high school graduation ceremonies are community-wide celebrations. School leaders like Principal Newell Johnson and Language and Culture consultant Katani Julian take great pride in their remarkable recent progress in delivering language immersion and other culturally-based programs and activities.

The success rate of schools like Allison Bernard Memorial High School impressed Scott Haldane, chair of a 2012 federal First Nations governance review panel, and he trumpeted the benefits of this First Nations-run model for students in his final report. It was also a key factor in the March 2019 renewal of the MK funding agreement for 10 years, representing an investment of $600 million going forward.

Students at Allison Bernard High School are far are more engaged because of pedagogy and curriculum more attuned to Mi’kmaw traditions. Emma’s breakout hit could well be a further breakthrough for Nova Scotia’s Mi’kmaw schools.

(An earlier version of this post appeared in The Chronicle Herald, 13 July 2019).

What can we learn from the overnight success of a young Mi’kmaw songbird?  What was the role of the Mi’kmaw language and music program? Are Indigenous students educated and immersed in their own language and culture more motivated to learn? Is there potential for other Canadian provinces and American states to find similar success? 

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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.

dfchsexteriorcbcGoing 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.

dfcriverceremonyporterInvesting 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? 


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