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Stars align for aboriginal education

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OTTAWA -- Shakespeare wrote that people, such as Romeo and Juliet, who have many troubles, have star-crossed lives. Certainly, the description applies to Canada's aboriginal peoples.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 17/01/2011 (4397 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

OTTAWA — Shakespeare wrote that people, such as Romeo and Juliet, who have many troubles, have star-crossed lives. Certainly, the description applies to Canada’s aboriginal peoples.

But this year may be different. The powerful influences in aboriginal matters are all lined up. The federal government, national and regional aboriginal leaders and a large segment of the aboriginal population all agree education should be the priority for aboriginal people in 2011.

Indian and Northern Affairs Minister John Duncan says the fact “the stars are all lined up is quite extraordinary and unprecedented.”

Duncan and Shawn Atleo, the savvy national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, have announced an expert panel will have until the middle of the year to develop a plan for education on reserves that is standards-based, accountable and regionally and culturally appropriate.

In addition, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said he is “open to participating” in a first meeting with First Nations leaders and has stressed his commitment to educational reform.

Atleo says reserve schools generally get $2,000 less for every student enrolled than the funding available for students on off-reserve schools.

Paul Martin, the former prime minister and a passionate advocate of aboriginal reform, told a Winnipeg business luncheon last month the inequality of funding between First Nations schools and those in the rest of the country is “not only unspeakably immoral, but it is economically dumb.”

Canada is failing the youngest and fastest-growing segment of its population, says Martin, at a time when a huge wave of baby boomers is starting to retire and the nation faces tough competition from the BRIC nations — Brazil, Russia, India and China.

Atleo has stressed the priority need for better education ever since he became national chief. At a meeting in Gatineau, Que., last month, the other aboriginal chiefs agreed with him.

“The time frame for achieving success in areas like education can’t be 25 or 50 years,” Atleo told the Globe and Mail. “It’s got to be in the short term because there is so much that is threatened. Our languages are threatened if we don’t support them. We’re threatened with the loss of another generation to deep despair if we don’t do this.”

Recent statistics show 40 per cent of aboriginal people in their early 20s do not have a high school diploma, compared to 13 per cent in the non-aboriginal population. About eight per cent of aboriginal people have a university education, compared to 23 per cent of non-aboriginals.

Many of the 60,000 aboriginal people who live in Winnipeg, Canada’s largest aboriginal community, know the problems with reserve schools. Too many young people come to the city looking for a brighter future, but without the skills they need.

A new, in-depth study of Winnipeg’s aboriginal people by the Environics Institute shows education reform is their top priority. The study was one of a number of studies of aboriginal peoples in major Canadian cities done by the institute, a not-for-profit foundation established by Environic Research co-founder Michael Adams.

More than 600,000 aboriginal people live in urban centres. The study found that “although many segments of First Nations, Métis and Inuit populations in Canada face substantial challenges, the picture in cities is more diverse — and in many cases more hopeful — than public perception and media coverage often acknowledges.”

Most of those interviewed were “very proud” of their aboriginal identity; they keep in touch with it; but they also want to become “a significant and visible part of the urban landscape” and they display “a higher tolerance for non-aboriginal cultures than their non-aboriginal neighbours.”

But a majority believe they are viewed in negative ways by non-aboriginal people.

And that raises a big question: Aboriginal peoples have indicated they are willing to make substantial changes in 2011. Are non-aboriginals willing to do the same?

Tom Ford is the managing

editor of The Issues Network.

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