Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Some gains, more pain still needed

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In broad strokes, the results of the Statistics Canada's 2011 National Household Survey look bad when it comes to how well Manitobans are educated; specifically, how aboriginal people here are faring. Manitobans lag on educational attainment compared to national averages and aboriginal people more so. There's work to be done in this province.

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(DALE CUMMINGS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

That begins before nursery school for children most likely to start behind their peers. For most, it means getting a good grounding in primary grades. The NDP government likes to point to the improving high school graduation rates, but the NHS results puts it on notice -- it has a ways to go yet.

Effort needs to be redoubled for Manitoba's aboriginal population. The numbers are stark and show generations of poor achievement have kept high school and post-secondary attainment levels low, especially for First Nations citizens. Among those aged 25 to 64, 83 per cent of non-aboriginal Manitobans have a high school diploma, compared to 58 per cent of aboriginal people, and 45 per cent of First Nations adults.

Gloomy stuff. The reasons for this are well known. Among the most obvious are the effects of poverty, which puts children quickly at risk of falling behind in school. But also, for those living on reserve, the quality of the schools, instruction and oversight as well as the attendance all fall notably short compared to Manitoba's public schools.

The silver lining in the NHS is Manitoba's aboriginal people are moving up the educational ladder faster than other Manitobans. Younger cohorts of aboriginal and First Nations people improved high school graduation rates faster than non-aboriginals.

That's a long way of saying aboriginal people are doing better, an affirmation of the focus trained in recent years on the critical role education plays in improving the lives, future incomes and employability of aboriginal children.

But the bald numbers, nonetheless, show there is so much work yet to be done.

The provincial government's challenge is to find the resources necessary and appropriate for schools in neighbourhoods with high aboriginal populations. Early childhood learning centres, along with social and economic supports for low-income homes with babies, can help in the development of very young minds. Further, education upgrading and trades training can feed the potential of young adults who dropped out of school.

On reserves, where the schools suffer from fewer resources and have a hard time attracting and retaining good teachers, the federal government must step up with more money. This fact has been emphasized repeatedly in analyses.

But band governments need to concede they, too, have not done enough. A national panel that studied the educational gap of First Nations underscored the need for bands to work together to form education authorities to help raise the standards of reserve schools, the teaching quality, the curriculum, the tracking of success and outcomes of students, as well as monitoring how money transferred to bands for schools is spent.

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(DALE CUMMINGS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

With that report in hand, the Harper government has said it will forge ahead to have a new First Nations education act in place by late 2014, including financial incentives to those bands that sign on to raise standards. The act intends to remove bands from the archaic, limited education standards now set in the Indian Act.

Native leaders in Manitoba and across Canada are bristling at the move, insisting they alone should design and set standards for education in their communities. A good education act will allow the bands enough latitude to do just that.

Rather than reject, outright, a logical approach to investing in the potential of youth, Manitoba First Nations leaders should present a blueprint that serves their schools and children. This will ensure the necessary funding and standards rise quickly to feed the potential to the benefit of all of Canada.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Gerald Flood, Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 28, 2013 A12

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