In Winnipeg, one out of every four kids starting school this fall will be aboriginal, and that number is expected to grow. At the same time, fewer than half of aboriginal students are expected to graduate.
Manitoba's aboriginal population is booming, and unless there is major change, so will the number of school dropouts who are more likely to be jobless, poor, have kids in care and abuse substances, experts say. To counter this, some are calling for an aboriginal school division. Others say only a long, intensive dose of caring will cure a wound that's festered for generations.
"There's nobody who can tell us the current system is optimal or working in many cases," said Wayne Helgason who testified on behalf of the Aboriginal Council of Winnipeg at the inquiry into the death of Phoenix Sinclair. The five-year-old girl's case exposed a powder keg of social ills: generations of residential school survivors living in poverty, raised in foster homes, dropping out of school, dealing with addiction, then losing their kids because of neglect. Phoenix was taken into care twice, abandoned by her mother, raised by her father and friends, then tormented, tortured and murdered by her mother and stepfather who swooped in to claim her at age four and collected welfare for her long after beating her to death.
Child-welfare spending has doubled since Phoenix's death in 2005, but so has the number of kids being taken into care. Retired justice Ted Hughes, who's spent decades reviewing broken systems and prescribing fixes, was hired to head the commission of inquiry. When he asked for recommendations on how to reduce the number of kids in care, child welfare experts and researchers said education is key.
The problem is, despite best efforts and more spending, the education system still isn't working for aboriginal people, said Helgason, a longtime advocate for an aboriginal school division.
"There have been some minor improvements," said the former head of the Aboriginal Council of Winnipeg, who was asked to testify on its behalf at the inquiry.
"With the very modest education improvements we're seeing, it will take 70 years to close the gap" he told Hughes at the inquiry.
The council is advocating for an urban aboriginal school division and a "holistic approach" to running schools for all people -- from babies to seniors.
"The opportunity to learn comes at different times," said Helgason. The Aboriginal Centre of Winnipeg offers adult education and literacy programs and serves a broad age demographic, he said.
"We've inherited systems in silos." The kindergarten-to-Grade 12 model doesn't suit everyone, said Helgason, who sits on several boards but is now retired. Aboriginal people know what's best for aboriginal people, said the M©tis man who was one of Winnipeg's first aboriginal in-school child-welfare workers 30 years ago, has run aboriginal agencies and headed the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg.
Academic research presented at the inquiry showed aboriginal kids who grew up in communities where they saw aboriginal adults with resources and power running their own institutions and businesses have the best outcomes down the road. Aboriginal child-welfare authorities have been established and it's time for an aboriginal education authority to have a say, said Helgason.
"It's almost like a school division should be a slam dunk -- the francophone school division is quite successful and a whole department in the government supports them," he said. "Anyone who wants to deny the aboriginal community the same thing, in my view, is hedging on racism," he said. And he wants to know why there are only two aboriginal schools in Winnipeg -- Children of the Earth and Niji Makwha -- when there are 14,000 school-age aboriginal kids in the city alone. There are fewer than 5,000 kids in the francophone division throughout the province and 20 schools, he said.
There aren't more aboriginal schools because the aboriginal community isn't setting them up, said Aileen Najduch, assistant deputy minister in charge of school programs for Manitoba Education, Citizenship and Youth.
"It's community-driven," Najduch said.
Any aboriginal school division or education authority would have to come from the aboriginal community, she said. "We're not dictating that."
The francophone community has its own school division in Manitoba but it also has federal support and an official languages act backing it up, said Education Minister Nancy Allan. She called on the federal government to do more to support aboriginal education in Manitoba.
First Nations are a federal responsibility and receive less money per student on-reserve from Ottawa than the provincial government spends on students off-reserve.
Sometimes you get what you pay for. Adults from remote reserves who attend Winnipeg's Aboriginal Centre for literacy or school upgrading often struggle, Helgason told the Sinclair inquiry.
"We were very shocked, actually, at the low functioning level of those who come from northern communities," he testified earlier.
Manitoba spends millions on aboriginal education programming off-reserve and is funding summer literacy camps on six reserves where the federal government is supposed to be footing the education bill.
At the current rate of improvement, it will still take 70 years for aboriginal school kids in Manitoba to catch up with their non-aboriginal counterparts.
"We don't want to wait 70 years," said Strini Reddy. That's why the retired educator and a colleague founded the hugely successful CSI program to help kids in poverty -- most of whom are aboriginal -- have a better chance of staying in school and having happy, productive lives.
Reddy's not sure if an aboriginal school division is the way to go.
"I do believe that aboriginal people are the ones who should make this decision and we should all support them in their efforts to improve the quality of education for these children," said Reddy.
He pointed to a 2010 report, Improving the Education Outcomes of Aboriginal People Living Off-Reserve, that looked at different delivery models. It linked stronger school performance to stronger cultural and family ties.
"All the research is so clear -- families have got to be involved," he said. "If they have a more direct voice in the lives of their kids, they feel a sense of ownership and empowerment."
The public is becoming more aware of the importance of culture and children learning who they are, Reddy said.
"The wider society is much more supportive to do whatever works," Reddy said. "We stand to lose a lot if kids are dropping out of school."