“Identity” is a dangerous word. It has no respectable contemporary uses. In academic life…undergraduates today can select from a swath of identity studies. The shortcoming of all these para-academic programs is not that they concentrate on a given ethnic or geographic minority; it is that they encourage members of that minority to study themselves- thereby simultaneously negating the goals of a liberal education and reinforcing the sectarian and ghetto mentalities they purport to undermine.- Tony Judt, “Edge People”1

Scott Clark, the Executive Director of the Aboriginal Life in Vancouver Enhancement Society, argues that aboriginal focus schools segregate aboriginal students. -Jim Brown, CBC Radio2

Cities in scores of states have recognized the dangers of racial and socioeconomic isolation and are taking steps to bring together children of different backgrounds. Racial isolation poses a threat, not just to the children, but to the civic and economic viability of the cities themselves. – New York Times Editorial 3

Because of the overall segregationist approach still and even increasingly being taken towards Canada’s Indians by our Indian and non-Indian elites, these vulnerable, suffering people are naturally far behind most other Canadians in social advantages and economic opportunities.

Willfully refusing to consider that the very flawed foundation of the relationship between Indians and non-Indians – the combination of the reserve system, the original and the new treaties, Haida Nation and its legal progeny, the Indian Act, and all the special race -based rights and entitlements that arise out of these things – all make the situation intractable and unsolvable, Canada’s governing classes join in a chorus with Canada’s Indian elites in singing the praises of more and better education for young Indians as one of the key ways out of the terrible social and economic situation Indians find themselves in.

Education is indeed one of the solutions, but the way these elites intend to implement this solution will only make the problem worse, not better.

Indian elites want more money for more and better on-reserve   primary and secondary schools – schools run by themselves.

As Shawn Atleo, former Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said,4 “first nations have been looking for control of first nations education and they’ve been calling for it loudly since the early 1970’s…it’s about coming together and jointly designing a future together.”

Mr. Atleo, a decent man and an extremely effective salesman for his cause, was forced to resign his position in May of 2014 for not having been aggressive and intransigent enough in his manner and policies to satisfy a large and influential,  faux-angry, delusional, always aggressive  faction of the Canadian taxpayer-funded Assembly of First Nations. And so the “revolution” eats its moderately young.

The continued folly of this faction continued the following December with the racist and divisive declaration of its new leader, Perry Bellegarde, that Canada is Indian land, -(not disputed at the time, or since, by then B.C. AFN Regional Chief Jody Wilson-Raybould, now Canada’s former conflict of interest-burdened Minister of Justice)- thusly presaging for the foreseeable future more segregationist negativity and the further destructive irrelevancy of this spoiled and pampered (by the Canadian taxpayer) organization.

Mr. Bellegarde’s continued public mantra is the (glaringly obvious)need to “close the gap”, (social, economic and political), between our Canadian Indian and non-Indian populations. But, just like all the other personally “I’m doing all right, Jack” members of the Indian elite, he is unwilling to consider that it is the existence of the  Indian Act, the reserve system, and all the rest of it discussed in this essay, that is the fundamental reason for this “gap”, and that for this ‘gap” to be eliminated, these things, sooner or later, will have to go.

Satisfying these Indian elites’ demands for money for and more power and control over aboriginal education  might be well-meaning, but unfortunately would also ultimately be totally ineffectual in solving the problems of the overall dismal academic performance level of Canada’s Indian youth. Because the places where these better-financed, Indian-run educational initiatives will be carried out – reserves – with all their tragic and well-documented social problems – will ensure that all the new money planned to be spent would be for nothing.

As Jeffrey Simpson wrote in the Globe and Mail in 2012, commentingon a recent First Nations education study panel report, First Nations Elementary and Secondary Education for Students on Reserves,5 issued jointly by Ottawa and the Assembly of First Nations:

Systems and structures are fine and necessary, as is proper funding. But the University of Ottawa’s Ross Finnie (among others) has convincingly shown that results from formal education have more to do with parental attitudes, cultural assumptions about the importance of education and community norms than anything else. Which means that aboriginal education can’t be divorced from its core contextual problem- the reserves themselves- that the panel correctly notes display socio-economic and health inequities, poverty, suicides, youth incarceration and abuse, high teen pregnancy rates, lower life expectancy and chronic disease. Fix those problems, which flow from the reserve system, and better educational results have a chance.

But these terrible problems, under the present system, are unfixable, and so those hoped-for better educational results have no chance of happening.

In relation to Canadian Indian enrollment in colleges and universities, the problems and risks of excessive control over education being given to Indian band elites have long been known. Most Canadians probably don’t realize that Indian reserve chiefs and councillors already have powerful and inappropriate control over which Indian youths receive financial assistance for university or college and over how much each chosen Indian student recipient gets.

The Canadian government gives block grant money to individual Indian reserve bands for this purpose. The chiefs and councillors of these bands then decide which applicant reserve youths are to receive part of this money for post-secondary education and how much. Canadians have no way of knowing if all this money paid over to these bands is actually fully, properly and fairly used to fund post-secondary education. No mandatory criteria are set out by the Canadian government in this regard.

Nor, to its shame, does it supervise or record the disbursement of these funds or ask for or receive any accounting for them. That would be interfering with the beneficent workings of Indian “self-government.”

As Calvin Helin, who, in his much more socially useful and virtuous pre-Eagle Spirit Energy (above) days, authored a report entitled  Free to Learn: Giving Aboriginal Youth Control over Their Post-Secondary Education,6 wrote:

…if you are one of the 70 percent of Indians who live off reserve, you would probably not receive a dime…Nobody knows you and there is no political payoff to financing your education.

Also, if you’re a reserve parent of a young Indian hoping to head off to university or college, you’d better stay in the good graces of chief and council. The situation is obviously ripe for subjectivity and abuse.

It’s totally inappropriate that a parent of a university or college aspirant should even have to consider having to stay in the good graces of anyone in order to better his or her child’s chances of receiving Canadian taxpayer-funded educational financial assistance. No responsible, credible non-Indian government department or agency would ever conduct its affairs in such a casual, undocumented and irresponsible manner (except maybe those who funded First Nations University…see below).

But, as evidenced by Shawn Atleo’s 2010 statement and the education panel report discussed immediately above, Canadian Indian elites are now demanding more in this area than just the maintenance of their control over educational financial assistance for Indian youth. They’re demanding complete control over the entire Indian education system itself!

Unfortunately, when considering the causes of low academic achievement on the part of Indian youth, it is apparently verboten for Indian and non-Indian elites to ever publicly ask or debate whether or not the “separate but equal” status quo might be contributing to this disastrous situation. That might raise issues of Indian personal responsibility, and threaten egos, funding, control over funding, and Indian industry jobs.

Rather, as evidenced by that panel report, their solution is for Canada and the provinces to pour more money into the existing dysfunctional situation and to give Indian elites more control over it. This is a solution that will do nothing positive for Indian youth.

Canada and Canadian Indian elites are failing Indian youth in this area. They’re failing them by supporting the existence of the dysfunctional, harmful “separate but equal” status quo for Indians, and now the further expansion of it in the area of education. And if this further expansion does happen as demanded, instead of education being used as a means of starting to get Indians out of the social and economic rut they are in, it’s going to be used as a means to put them deeper and more securely into it.

  1. Tony Judt. “Edge People.” The Memory Chalet. New York: Penguin Press, 2010.
  2. Do Aboriginal Focus Schools Help or Hurt Students? CBC Radio, The 180, hosted by Jim Brown, October 29, 2015
  3. June 27th, 2017
  4. The Globe & Mail, December 17th, 2010.
  5. The Globe & Mail, March 14th, 2012
  6. Calvin Helin. “Free to Learn: Giving Aboriginal Youth Control over Their Post-Secondary Education.” True North: In Canadian Public Policy, March 2010.

By: Peter Best