When Darren McKee attended school in rural Saskatchewan, he was the only brown boy in a sea of white, and he knew it. The bullying and intimidation he suffered drove him to get an education against the odds and work to ensure that no other Aboriginal child experienced what he did.
McKee worked as a teacher and principal, a deputy minister of education, and is now the Executive Director of the Saskatchewan School Boards Association, focusing on what he calls the “cultural responsiveness” of the education system. As an example, he offers an anecdote from his own teaching career: trying to teach Aboriginal kids from remote communities how to spell the word “escalator” when most of them had no idea what that was.
“My own culture was about education and we were always taught how important learning was,” McKee says. “But the system wasn’t about learning, it was about conforming.”
That, he says, is changing, thanks to initiatives like former Prime Minister Paul Martin’s Martin Family Initiative (recently changed from Martin Aboriginal Education Initiative, www.maei-ieam.ca), part of which aims to keep First Nations, Métis and Inuit kids in school through entrepreneurial training tailored to their culture. The Aboriginal Youth Entrepreneurship Program (AYEP) is now offered in 48 high schools in eight provinces and one territory, and so far, about 700 students have completed it. “We know that a majority of the kids who enter the program continue to complete their school, which is a huge thing,” McKee says. “For the first time, they feel like they are successful and they’re treated as successful. One of our students won a national entrepreneurship award.”
Sydney Demerais is enrolled in the AYEP at Prince Albert Collegiate Institute and will be the first of her six siblings to graduate from high school. While this 17-year-old Plains Cree student plans to attend university to become a nurse, she’s loving learning how to be “professional and grown up” in the AYEP.
“I’m very excited about the financial part of the course and learning about banking,” Demerais says in a telephone interview during a break from class. “I’m thinking I’d like to start a non-profit youth centre where kids could do sports or go to a gym.”
Martin himself credits the quality of the teachers and support of principals for the program, which was designed in 2008. But also the workbooks and textbooks – the first of their kind in the world – were designed by two Indigenous teachers with Indigenous culture in mind.
“These kids can see other Indigenous people succeeding,” Martin said in a recent interview. “They have role models to follow.”
“It doesn’t matter where you come from, who you are, you deserve the opportunity to be successful,” says McKee. But one key to that success is networking and being introduced to people and places that in the past may have been out of reach. Making those connections requires going outside the traditional education silo and building partnerships with credit unions, chambers of commerce and corporate sponsors, outfitting the kids with suits and giving them networking opportunities.
“We have to engage in these partnerships that invite those outside of education, like the Martin foundation and the businesses. Traditionally, we haven’t done that in education” McKee says. “There are certain rules when you come to work for kids, but if you follow those rules you’re welcome to be part of it.”
When I spoke with her, Desmerais was looking forward to getting dressed up and attending a formal dinner in a restaurant organized by the local credit union, where she and her fellow students could get to know established business people from Prince Albert.
Tiara Opissinow is a Grade 10 student at Eagleview Comprehensive High School, in Onion Lake, Sask. She says she has learned skills she can use to help her grandmother, who runs a food truck and sells homemade earrings.
“I think I’ll be able to help her with the accounting,” she says over the phone during a break in class. “The course doesn’t just teach us how to start a business, but we also learn life skills like banking, saving money, budgeting and accounting.” Opissinow thinks she may want to become a lawyer, but since signing up for AYEP, she is also considering taking business at university.
The politics of educational equity
Martin has made it his mission to right the inequalities in Aboriginal education and has received assurances from the current Liberal government that funding to Indigenous schools will increase to ensure it happens.
With Canada’s fastest growing population under the age of 15 being Aboriginal, it just makes economic sense, he says. Plus, it’s downright discriminatory that Indigenous schools, which are funded by the federal government, receive 30-50 percent less financial support than other schools, which are funded by the provinces.
“The federal government doesn’t have a department of education, but there’s no way any federal government can plead ignorance,” Martin said in a recent interview. “Those numbers are sitting out there. They’ve been verified by every province and every First Nation in the country. That’s why teachers in these schools leave, this is why there are no special programs for kids with disabilities or any of that.”
And there’s no doubt that Indigenous students are in need of increased support. Statistics Canada figures from 2011 suggest a whopping 58 percent of on-reserve Aboriginal students drop out of high school, compared to just ten percent of their non-Aboriginal counterparts. Martin maintains that many students have given up long before reaching adolescence, partly because they have never learned to read and write fluently. While it may be obvious, studies from around the world have concluded that reading well is fundamental to success in school.
To try to shift the imbalance, his Aboriginal Education Initiative began a literacy pilot project in 2009, based in two Ontario Ojibwa community schools – Hillside School, run by the Kettle and Stony Point First Nation on the shores of Lake Huron, and Walpole Island Elementary School, about two hours from Kettle Point. The results were extraordinary. The number of Grade 3 students whose reading and writing skills met or exceeded the Ontario Ministry of Education’s target jumped to 91 percent, an increase of more than 50 percent and well above the provincial average of 70 percent. Further, the number of students identified as needing speech and language services decreased significantly.
With funding from the Pathy Family Foundation and the Lawrence and Judith Tanenbaum Family Foundation, about $1 million was spent in each of the two schools over five years, mostly on intensive training for teachers. The key change was that reading and writing had to be taught for 100 minutes every morning from Kindergarten to Grade 8.
“At the end of the program, when we had brought Kettle and Stony Point up to the provincial average, which was extraordinary – people said it couldn’t be done – the Chief of Kettle Point said, ‘This proves if you give us the tools, we will do the job’,” Martin says. “And he was so right.”
It was that thinking, says Martin, that inspired the creation of the MAEI in the first place.
“We knew that if we provided the tools to the Métis, the First Nations and the Inuit, they would develop education systems as good as any in the country,” he said. “And if they could demonstrate that, there would be no excuse for any federal government not to fund them properly.”
Now the challenge is to get the program in all Indigenous schools in the country and to see Indigenous Canadians succeeding on the same scale as other Canadians right through from Kindergarten to PhD.
“There’s no doubt in my mind this is possible,” Martin says. “In every area where we have our programs it’s making a difference. People ask, can we afford to do this? If anyone came along to any Canadian and said we can’t afford to give your child a primary school education, Canadians would not stand for that. Why would they stand for it for their next-door neighbour who happens to be Indigenous?”
As for the entrepreneurship program, McKee is already seeing the benefits in the 15 Saskatchewan schools where it is currently offered. “I’m seeing our young Aboriginal people who are confident,” he says. “It was education that got us into this dilemma, through the Indian Act and the residential schools, and it will be education that will get us out of it – but we have to fundamentally shift the way we do things.”
A conversation with Paul Martin
In February of 2015, CEA gathered over 100 Indigenous, education and corporate leaders in Toronto to listen to a conversation between former Prime Minister Paul Martin and CEA President and CEO Ron Canuel about the crucial steps that must be taken to provide Indigenous children the future they deserve.
Watch highlights from “Indigenous Education: The Urgency to Act”: www.cea-ace.ca/paulmartin
En Bref: L’ex-premier ministre Paul Martin s’est donné pour mission de redresser les iniquités de l’éducation autochtone. Il soutient qu’il est tout simplement discriminatoire que le budget des écoles autochtones, financées par le gouvernement fédéral, soit inférieur de 30 à 50 pour cent à celui des autres écoles, qui sont financées par les provinces. Le programme Jeunes entrepreneurs autochtones de l’Initiative d’Éducation Autochtone Martin donne déjà à des élèves du secondaire assez d’assurance pour se lancer dans le monde des entreprises – où leurs ancêtres étaient rarement les bienvenus. En outre, un projet pilote destiné à enseigner la lecture et l’écriture aux plus jeunes dans deux écoles autochtones a remporté un succès retentissant. « Je suis absolument persuadé que c’est possible, affirme Paul Martin. Chacun de nos programmes a des résultats probants. »
Photo: courtesy the Saskatchewan School Board Association
First published in Education Canada, September 2016