The First Nations elders are feeling their age; some are frail. Yet they are a bulwark against the death of some of their communities.
They do this by helping to educate First Nations youngsters. The horrid residential schools were designed, one government official said, "to take the Indian out of the child." Today's challenge is to put the "Indian" back in. The elders are among the few who know how to do that.
Kenzie Wilson, 13, of Cross Lake in northern Manitoba explains: "We need papers behind our names to live in today's world, but we still need those traditional teachings to learn who we are and where we come from."
Kenzie was selected to be one of two youth participants in last week's final round table of the National Panel on First Nation Elementary and Secondary Education.
In one of her many academic papers on gangs, Melanie Nimmo, assistant professor at the University of Winnipeg's department of criminal justice, says many young aboriginals join gangs because they give them the identity and support they can't get at home.
You can see the work of the elders at Winnipeg's Main Street Thunderbird House. They teach the young people who they are and how they can get help with life's problems, using histories, myths and activities such as sweat lodges.
"The elders give the young people what their parents can't," says Cam Mackie, a consultant.
A lot of people think the only people affected by residential schools were those who attended them. But the sickness of the schools extends beyond that. The generations that went to the schools were confused about their background and couldn't teach their children about family life or what it means to be a First Nation person. They, in turn, couldn't teach their children. This cascading effect hurts young aboriginals even now.
Key people have apologized for the residential schools. Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized in 2008. University of Manitoba president David Barnard apologized last month. All well and good. But when in the name of decency is the federal government going to do something to fix the deplorable state of schools on reserves today?
The prime minister has said he wants to make First Nations education a priority. Shawn Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, agrees -- but wants to go farther and replace the department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development with more contemporary entities.
A three-member panel, headed by Scott Haldane, president of YMCA Canada, has visited schools in many reserves and found the situation grim. Only 35 per cent of children graduate from high school, which means they can't get good jobs. Staff turnover rates range from 20 to 40 per cent because teachers leave for better paying jobs.
Ottawa-funded reserve schools annually receive $2,000 less per student than provincial schools.
Some of the 520 band-operated schools in Canada are filled with black mould, says a recent report. An infestation of snakes closed one school.
One result of all this is that many unskilled young people from reserves end up in Winnipeg where they can't get work. The city has to try to help them even though it has little expertise and has the least money of all our governments.
Atleo says increasing First Nations graduation rates to those of other Canadians would inject $71 billion into our economy over the next ten years.
Not all reserves schools are in trouble. Haldane says some reserve schools in Nova Scotia and British Columbia are doing well. The secret seems to be that aboriginals control the schools and the administrative jobs that go along with them.
The issue of control has made some chiefs decide not to take part in the panel's work. They fear the federal government will use the report to take more control over First Nation schools.
Once the panel's report is delivered, Harper and some of his ministers are to have a summit meeting with Atleo and some assembly chiefs.
The results of the meeting are critical. Prof. Pamela Palmater, a Ryerson University associate professor and Mi'Kmag author, says that unless some basic changes are made some First Nations will become extinct. The elders can't live forever.
It's been easy for some of us to say that residential schools were a sad episode, but we didn't have anything to do with them. But unless we rouse Harper into action on aboriginal problems now we could be complicit in the death of some nations.
Tom Ford is editor of The Issues Network.