Progress should be feted, but vigilance required

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It was with a mixture of pride and joy that Manitobans recently learned more indigenous students are graduating from post-secondary institutions in this province than ever before.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 10/05/2017 (2030 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It was with a mixture of pride and joy that Manitobans recently learned more indigenous students are graduating from post-secondary institutions in this province than ever before.

The University of Manitoba annual Traditional Graduation Powwow, held each year to celebrate the achievements of indigenous graduates, welcomed 430 students this year, one of the highest totals ever. The story was very much the same at Red River College’s graduation powwow, where another 120 indigenous graduates were honoured. Over at the University of Winnipeg, where every student is mandated to take an indigenous studies course, the number of students that self-identify as indigenous is growing exponentially.

This is incredibly good news. Higher education is key to freeing indigenous people from a cycle of poverty and familial dysfunction. However, we know by now that there is no such thing as a permanent solution to a big social problem.

JEN DOERKSEN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES Indigenous dancers perform at the U of M’s annual Traditional Graduation Powwow.

Progress on one front must be weighed against regression on other fronts. And just as there is evidence of progress in graduating indigenous students from university and college, so too there are signs of slippage in other parts of the education continuum.

The same week as we witnessed the impressive turnout at graduation powwows, the alarm was raised at a North End Winnipeg high school about extremely high student absentee rates.

Community activists appeared before the Winnipeg School Division board on Monday evening to highlight concerns about St. John’s High School, where student absenteeism is running on any day at nearly 16 per cent. That is five times higher than the absentee rate at Kelvin High School in Crescentwood.

The student body at St. John’s is not 100 per cent indigenous, but there is a very high percentage of students who would self-identify as indigenous. More importantly, a high proportion of the students come from families on the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum. Education is the most important positive force in their lives. Without an education system that inspires students to attend school and participate fully, many students will be destined to live in the same conditions their parents face.

There are no easy solutions to student absenteeism. The community activists asked that the school division approach the province to create a task force to look at possible solutions. They note that while the province and division provide many resources at the elementary level to watch over students and engage them, there are far fewer resources afforded to students at the high-school level. They want that to change.

The activists say Manitoba’s education minister, Ian Wishart, has assigned one of his assistant deputy ministers to work with the community to identify ways of improving student attendance at schools in North End neighbourhoods. That is an excellent start, but a commitment to consultation must not be used as a tactic to delay action. Every year that we allow student absenteeism to run at epidemic levels is a year we lose ground in the long-term battle to increase participation of indigenous and impoverished students in post-secondary education.

The graduation powwows at Manitoba post-secondary schools are proof that we are making progress. However, the situation at St. John’s High School reminds us that the only true solution to a profound social problem is constant vigilance.

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