Aboriginal Education in Canada: A Plea for Integration
This paper explores interactions among formal learning, informal learning, and life conditions and opportunities experienced by Aboriginal people in Canada. Aboriginal is the most popular term used to refer to Canada's original people (Kirkness, 1999). Aboriginal, Indian, and First Nations are all terms used to describe Canadian natives.
A great deal of attention has been given in recent years to what is commonly described as an education gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians (Wotherspoon and Butler, 1999). According to 1996 census data, approximately one-third (35%) of Canadians aged fifteen and over, compared to more than half (54%) of the comparable Aboriginal population, never graduated high school, while 16% of the national adult population, and only 4.5% of the Aboriginal population, have college degrees (Statistics Canada, 1998). Aboriginal dropout rates are reported to be double those for the general population, and Aboriginal school leavers are about half as likely to return to school later in life (Gilbert et al. 1993: 23).
Many people associate these restricted levels of school retention and formal educational attainment with inadequate labor market integration and low socioeconomic status among people of Aboriginal ancestry (Wotherspoon and Butler, 1999). Educational problems are also mixed with poverty, violence, alcohol and drug abuse, discrimination, and other difficulties that many Aboriginal people suffer. These concerns are important, as the Aboriginal population is younger, and growing faster, than the general Canadian population. In Saskatchewan, for example, much of the area's total population and approximately twenty percent of its school-age population were of Aboriginal ancestry in 1996. It is predicted that Aboriginal youth will make up nearly one-third of the province's school-age population in ten years, and thus substantial proportions of future labor market entrants will be of Aboriginal ancestry early in the next century.
Education plays a key role in promoting the attainment by Aboriginal people of various objectives for self-determination and equal participation in Canadian society (Wotherspoon and Butler, 1999). Educational issues have greater significance in the context of increasing policy attentiveness to questions about how an aging but diverse society can benefit from the incorporation of historically marginalized groups into meaningful social and economic positions. As a result, the Aboriginal education gap has been the focus of a diverse and increasing range of policy and program initiatives by numerous public and private sector bodies, particularly over the past three decades.
It is important to note that more and more Aboriginal learners are enrolling in programs and attaining credentials in conventional and First Nations-administered educational institutions at various levels (Wotherspoon and Butler, 1999). Elementary and secondary schools in many areas now incorporate Aboriginal teachers, cultural programming, and services that are geared to the needs of Aboriginal learners. More Aboriginal adults, particularly women, in age groups above usual post-secondary entrance levels, are returning to schools and universities to get a better education. Still, as Canadians' general rates of participation and attainment levels in formal education are reaching greater heights, comparable educational achievements among Aboriginal people remain well below national averages (Kirkness and Bowman, 1992).
As research and policy attention is directed more at the educational deficits among Aboriginal people in regards to formal schooling, there has been some consideration of the importance and potential of informal educational activities (Wotherspoon and Butler, 1999). Informal learning, comprising deliberate learning situations that exist outside of formally credentialed education, is a widespread but underplayed type of education that plays an important role in increasing people's knowledge and capabilities in various spheres of contemporary social life (Garrick, 1996: 22-23). Many Aboriginal people, despite their formal education levels, may have applied skills or be involved, for example, in cultural programs or self-help ventures that are not acknowledged in formal assessments of their credentials. In this light, socially-useful knowledge and skills learned through traditional means may be forgotten or undermined in the course of individual or community efforts to conform to formal schooling or training programs. Thus, it is important to consider the nature and extent of informal learning among Aboriginal people in order to enhance Canada's overall understanding of education and promote effective strategies to realize the capacities of the native people.
Many years before Europeans came to North America, Indians had developed their educational practices, based on a system in which the community was the classroom, its members were the teachers, and each adult was responsible to make sure each child learned how to live a good life (National Indian Brotherhood, 1973).
The core of this educational system was the belief in the Great Spirit. The Gospel of the Redman stated that "The Redman has the most spiritual civilization the world has ever known.... His measure of success is 'How much service have I rendered to my people?'... His mode of life, his thought, his every act are given spiritual significance (Seton & Seton, 1977)." This belief was expressed in their daily living, in human interaction, in humility, in sharing, in cooperating, in nature, and just about everything else (Kirkness, 1999). Traditionally, the natives' teachings addressed the total being, the whole community, in the context of a living culture.
The way the natives lived and learned was dramatically altered when the European missionaries arrived in the early 17th century (Kirkness, 1999). The Europeans established schools for Indians, believing that this would be the best method of civilizing the "natives." Day or Mission schools were established to teach the natives how to behave in a civilized manner. Day schools, however, were abandoned in favor of residential (boarding) schools in the 1800s. The highest recorded number of residential schools, which were located all across Canada, was 80 in 1933. These schools enrolled anywhere from fifty to over four hundred students of all ages. Most of these schools were phased out in the 1960s.
Residential schools served to isolate the Indian child from his parents and the influences of his community (Kirkness, 1999). As one government inspector argued in the mid 1800s: "Little can be done with him (the Indian child). He can be taught to do a little farming, and at stock raising, and to dress in a more civilized manner, but that is all. The child who goes to a day school learns little while his tastes are fashioned at home, and his inherited aversion to toil is in no way combated." (Indian Affairs Branch, 1879-1880)
The residential schools basically oppressed the Indians (Kirkness, 1999). The children were separated from their parents for long periods of time, and were subjected to a severe regimen. The boys were forced to clean the stables, attend to the livestock, fix broken machinery, and work in the fields. The girls were responsible for maintaining the school, washing and mending clothes, doing kitchen chores, scrubbing floors and doing other domestic chores. For many years, the Indian students spent only a half day in the classroom. They received only a very basic education designed to prepare them for a domestic, Christian life.
In addition, the residential school was notable for its high mortality rate among the students. At the turn of the century, approximately 50% of the children who attended these schools did not benefit from the education they received, as they died of diseases such as smallpox and tuberculosis (Kirkness, 1999). Some believe that many died of loneliness. It wasn't until recently that the general public become aware of the true devastation suffered by these residential school students, who were subjected to physical, mental and sexual abuse under the colonial regime.
Because generations of Indian children were separated from their parents, they did not experience a normal childhood and the teachings of their people (Kirkness, 1999). As a result, they lost their cultural traditions, including their native languages. This represents a dark period in the history of Indian education, the consequences of which are still felt today.
Indian society as a whole has suffered from this period. This loss has resulted in cultural conflict, alienation, poor self-concept, lack of preparation for jobs and for life in general. The colonial regime affected not only those who actually attended these schools but also their children and their communities.
In the 1950s, another shift occurred (Kirkness, 1999). The idea of civilizing and Christianizing gave way to an increase in the number of federally operated Indian Day Schools on reserves to accommodate the closure of residential schools. At this time, a policy of integration was introduced. Integration is best described as the process of having Indian students attend public schools. Often, residential schools were transformed into student residences and the students attended the nearest public schools. In other cases, children were transported from their homes on reserves to nearby public schools. By the 1970s, the government of Canada had successfully made provisions for approximately 60% of Indian students in public schools.
The integration concept continued government control over the lives of the native people. It was introduced with little or no consultation with the native people. No particular preparation of teachers or of curriculum was made to…