37. A “FIRST NATIONS” EDUCATION

Segregating black children from others solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone. The impact of segregation is greater when it has the sanction of law. A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of the child to learn. Segregation with the sanction of law tends to impede the educational and mental development of black children and deprives them of the benefits they would receive in an integrated school system. – Chief Justice Earl Warren, United States Supreme Court, in Brown vs. Board of Education, 19541

Q- What’s wrong with the idea of a separate school designed to give aboriginal youth an education through a First Nations lens?

A-There’s no research to say segregating aboriginal kids in the urban context is actually a good thing. There’s no chance for non-aboriginals to learn about aboriginal issues. If we are committed to the concept of reconciliation then we have to work with all our students in the classroom and stop segregating aboriginal people into separate programs and alternative schools and work in the best ways of being inclusionary and reflective and respectful of different histories and share their histories in the school room.-Scott Clark, Executive Director, Aboriginal Life in Vancouver Enhancement Society (ALIVE) 2

The desire for wisdom has always-for 5000 years-meant listening. And the quest for wisdom has always meant sacrificing old ideas for new ones, risking the difficult voyage, risking metaphoric death for rebirth. Wisdom requires that we hold the known in a new way to understand the unknown. -Canadian novelist, scholar and translator Kim Echlin3

Confusion over identity arises as a condition of living in the modern world. Modernization means constant change and disruption, and the opening up of choices that did not exist before. It is mobile, fluid and complex…While some individuals may persuade themselves that their identity is based on biology and is outside their control, the condition of modernity is to have multiple identities, ones that are shaped by our social interactions on any number of levels.-Francis Fukayama 4

Instead of getting just a good education, the avowed goal of Indian elites is to see that their youth get something far less useful – a “culturally sensitive,” “first nations” education.

How does or would a “first nations” education differ from just an “education”? Why, it’s to be, as stated, “culturally sensitive” and “culturally appropriate.” (All non-Indian Canadians at one time or another in the last 20 years have been deflated and rendered silent by either or both of these two deadening, essentially meaningless phrases.)

More particularly, as an example, according to an accord signed between the Canadian Congress of Humanities and Social Sciences and certain Indian leaders in Montreal, in June of 2010,5 it will be an education that will “respect” in the classroom “traditional” Indian “knowledge and culture,” and which will “reflect native values.”

According to Mathew Coon Come, former Grand Chief of the Crees, one of the signers: “Incorporating indigenous teachings and culture…will make first nations students feel more welcome in the classroom and keep them in school longer.” Further, according to Mr. Coon Come: “By involving indigenous groups in curriculum development and by respecting their knowledge…the accord could become a model for co-operation in areas such as mining, forestry and politics.”

In August of 2017 the federal government announced just such an initiative, with these illusory goals in mind. It announced, with the support of the Ontario government, a “self-governing” agreement with the “Anishinabek Nation” to turn over control of  Kindergarten to Grade 12 education on 23 reserves to this vague, unsubstantive organization. The goal is to create a “community driven education system that will incorporate language and culture”, and that “will improve academic achievement and keep students in school”. 6

Thus, by means of Indian-controlled, Indian race-based education, the myths that there exists a cogent and coherent set of “indigenous teachings” and a “distinct” “traditional” indigenous culture justifying the creation of a new archipelago of “separate schools”, leading to the hubris and harmfulness of further Indian exceptionalism, are to be formally perpetuated and engrained into future generations of Indian young people. And the intellectual travesty is perpetrated that “indigenous teachings and culture” can have an important or meaningful role to play in the teaching of such science and technology-based disciplines as mining or forestry.

More importantly, Indian children will experience benign racism under the guise of Indian exceptionalism. They will be taught to be conscious of race. Young children are born humanists. They are basically oblivious to racial differences, or any other similar differences and so exist in a state of ideal civic grace. Race-based schools disgracefully diminish this.

All this guarantees that the existing alienation of young Indian Canadians from the country’s cultural and economic mainstream will only get worse, and that the tragic  social failures which are a product of Indian reserves will only get worse.

The Canadian Congress of Humanities and Social Sciences, the well-meaning people responsible for continuing to give to non-Indian Canadian students the archetypal “useless arts degree,” and the federal and Ontario governments, projecting this beyond the secondary school level, are now helping to institutionalize and encourage the proliferation of the even more useless “native studies” arts degree, so that now Indian-Canadian liberal arts graduates, armed with these kind of fluff degrees, somewhat like their non-Indian counterparts, can go back to their reserve and move back in with their parents.

Giving into the demands of Mr. Atleo and Mr. Coon Come, as they then were – creating this “Anishinabek Nation”, so-called “self-governing” education agreement-is harmful to young Indian-Canadians for many reasons, some already partially stated above.

It will perpetuate Amartya Sen’s “civilizational partitioning” – the illiberal, segregationist, ostensibly “separate but equal” model of arranging affairs involving Indian and non-Indian Canadians- which is implicitly racist, and, as such, is civically unhealthy, socially divisive, and tragically limiting for aboriginal individual personal development.

The profound, superior and ultimately humane and humble Christian ethicist,  Marilynne Robinson, states the ultimate and unanswerable case thusly:

It is the old assumption that difference undermines stability and strength. When this assumption takes hold, the definition of community hardens and contracts and  becomes violently exclusive and defensive. We have seen Christians against Christians and Muslims against Muslims, fighting to the death over distinctions those outside their groups would probably never notice and could certainly never understand. When definitions of “us” and “them” begin to contract, there seems to be no limit to how narrow these definitions can become. As they shrink and narrow, they are increasingly inflamed, more dangerous and inhumane. They present themselves as movements towards truer and purer community, but as I have said, they are dangerous of community. They insist that the imagination must stay within the boundaries they establish for it, that sympathy and identification are only allowable within certain limits. I am convinced that the broadest possible exercise of imagination is the thing most conducive to human health, individual and global.

In fact we in America have done pretty well. By human standards, which admittedly are pretty low. I submit this is due to the fact that we have many overlapping communities and most of us identify with a number of them. I identify with my congregation, with my denomination, with Christianity, with the customs and institutions that express the human capacity for reverence, allowing for turbulence within these groups and phenomena. Since we are human beings turbulence is to be expected. If the effect of turbulence is to drive me or anyone else back on some narrower definition of identity, then the moderating effects of broader identification are lost. And this destroys every community-not only through outright suppression of conflict. Those who seemingly win are damaged inwardly and insidiously because they have betrayed the better nature and the highest teaching of their community in descending to exclusion, suppression or violence. 7

More simply, as put by New York Times essayist David Brooks:

By retreating to neat homogeneous monocultures, most separatists will end up doing what all self-segregationists do, fostering narrowness, prejudice and moral arrogance. They will close off dynamic creativity. 8

Scott Clark, Executive-Director of Vancouver’s aboriginal organization ALIVE (headnote above), an organization devoted to the welfare of Vancouver’s huge Indian-Canadian population, (50% of all aboriginals in Canada now live in such large, urban centers as Vancouver), fundamentally agrees with  Chief Justice Warren in Brown vs Board of Education (headnote above).

From his urban experience and with his attendant gritty, street-level view of reality, he knows that Indians-only schools hurt everybody: the ghettoized Indian-Canadian children, the non-Indian-Canadian children who are deprived of the benefits of daily association with Indian-Canadian children, and society as a whole, which is deprived of the ameliorative reality of a more inclusive, integrated broader community. For Mr. Clark, (and me) we need to “stop segregating aboriginal people into separate programs and alternate schools” in order to better promote the “reconciliation” of Indian-Canadians and non-Indian Canadians.

Because “Indians only” schools encourage young Indians- who, like all young children are oblivious to race until foolish adults teach them to the contrary– to think parochially and tribally, rather than expansively and ecumenically, thus limiting their imagination and human potential.

The cultures of the world’s peoples are complex and diverse, but they are manifestations of one phenomenon, the uniqueness of the human presence on earth…Touch a limit of your understanding and it falls away, to reveal mystery upon mystery. The one great lesson we can take from the study of (other civilizations) is the appropriateness of reverence, of awe, and of pity, too.

(Marilynne Robinson, from Decline, in The Givenness of Things (above)

They will, as Amatya Sen wrote, tend to “miniaturize” young Indians as human beings, rather than expand them. They will devalue, denigrate and hold back the assimilation of Indian-Canadians with the rest of Canadians, which, for the reasons stated earlier, despite all the massive, ill-considered propaganda to the contrary, is the supremely liberal, humanistic, positive and constructive value and goal for Indian-Canadians to strive for.

Therein lies Indian progress, pride, achievement and liberation., because, in the final analysis, a person’s full humanity can only be realized when he or she goes to school, or lives generally, amidst a genuine and equal plurality of different peoples. 9

In Ontario, the obvious fact that Catholic separate schools are an unaffordable, illiberal anachronism that should be abolished is finally able to be public discussed. (Permitted public discussion-the difficult-to-achieve first step on any path to reform! A step not yet achieved with respect to the arguments made in this essay.) Globe and Mail columnist Marcus Gee wrote of:

…how little sense it makes in 2018 to have a separate system of religious schools underwritten by public money. It is unequal…Most of all it is backward. The separate school system stems from a long-ago compromise between French and English that has no relevance to a society made up of people from every corner of the planet professing every belief under the sun…It is time to embrace that new reality and wind up the separate school system. 10

These common sense thoughts apply full force to the unaffordable, illiberal, harmful, anachronistic establishment of a new  form of separate school system for Indigenous Ontarians!

Indigenous leaders say such a new separate school system is necessary to preserve their “culture” and prevent “assimilation.” Yes, if indigenous children went to ordinary public schools they would assimilate more. Good. Assimilation does not mean cultural death. It  means cultural continuity and survival, cultural renewal and strengthening. It is to be embraced, not feared and avoided. The words of Simon Ley from The Paradox of Provincialism, (Assimilation and Cultural Loss, above, bear repeating:

Culture is born out of exchanges and thrives on differences. The death of culture lies in its self-centeredness, self-sufficiency and isolation.

So the more Indian elites pursue this foolish idea of “Indians only” education, ostensibly to preserve their culture, the more they ensure the death of it.

People don’t “lose their culture” when they assimilate.We all know third and fourth- generation Canadians of ethnic origin – Italian, Japanese, Chinese, Polish, Ukrainian – who proudly and successfully incorporate into their lives both their culture of origin and our common, modern Canadian culture. It would be the same for Indians if only they’d be given a chance!

As Amartya  Sen reminds us, human beings are infinitely diverse and complex by nature. We can embrace and hold opposites. As Walt Whitman, a contemporary of the Gambler said, “…we are large, we contain multitudes.”

Joseph Boyden, born and raised in Toronto, with only a smidgen of “aboriginal” blood somewhere in his ancestry,  had, (he was later brought low by the “cultural appropriation” police), through his great books, (and some public relations artistry),  transformed himself into a symbol of successful, integrated indigenous culture.

As evidenced by their reaction to the federal government’s proposed First Nation Education Act of 2013, Indian elites want virtually sole jurisdiction and control over their own fully funded (by non-Indian Canadians) education system.

But as a matter of educational fact, this segregated, Indians-only form of educational experience that Indian elites want more of  is academically inferior and, like segregation in society generally, socially and academically debilitating. As Scott Clark asserts, clearly an integrated educational experience, where Indian-Canadian students attend school with students of all races, colours and creeds, would benefit Indian-Canadian youth far more.

All of this was further confirmed by another Vancouver school experience, described in Calvin Helin’s Dances With Dependency, (above), that of Grandview Elementary School, in East Vancouver, 50% of the school population of which was aboriginal, and the rest children of new-immigrant families.

The school completely eschewed the “culturally centred” curriculum for the aboriginal children, focusing mainly on reading and numeracy skills. Mr. Helin writes:

Most prevailing views suggest( that there should have been) a culturally centred curriculum for the Aboriginal kids. Such an approach typically involves segregation of the Aboriginal students with a lot of vague, “I’m okay, you’re okay” touchy-feely support. In practice the (School) found that many of the Aboriginal kids had been put into a segregated program…long on cultural sensitivity, self-esteem and hugs, but very short on literacy. There were no demands on the kids, and they were out of control. Far from feeling self-esteem, they felt like failures.

Instead, racial integration of the aboriginal students, and high academic expectations of them, were found to be the keys to their academic success, not “cultural sensitivity”, which the School found, the aboriginal children could really have cared less about.

In the New York Times,11 David L. Kirp, a professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley, writing about the effect of the Brown vs. Board of Education decision (above) on black academic and life achievement, wrote:

The experience of an integrated education made all the difference in the lives of black children-and in the lives of their children as well. …African-American students who attended integrated schools fared better academically than those left behind in segregated schools. They were more likely to graduate from high school and attend and graduate from college; and the longer they spent attending integrated schools the better they did….Not only were they more successful in school, they were more successful in life as well.  A 2011 study by the Berkeley public policy professor Rucker C. Johnson concludes that black youths who spent five years in desegregated schools have earned 25 percent more than those who never had that opportunity.  Now in their 30s and 40s, they’re also healthier- the equivalent of being seven years younger…. Professor Johnson takes this story one big step further by showing that the impact of integration reaches to the next generation. These youngsters- the grandchildren of Brown-are faring better in school than those parents who attended racially isolated schools.

The same results came out of an even more recent study done by American university professors Sheen S. Levine and David Stark, the subject of an article by them in The New York Times,12 Diversity Makes You Brighter. They described some of their study conclusions as follows:

Diversity improves the way people think. By disrupting conformity, racial and ethnic diversity prompts people to scrutinize facts, think more deeply and develop their own opinions. Our findings show that such diversity benefits everyone, minorities and majority alike.

When (study) participants were in diverse company, their answers were 58 percent more accurate…In homogenous groups, the opposite happened. When surrounded by others of the same ethnicity or race, participants were more likely to copy others, in the wrong  direction. Mistakes spread as  participants seemingly put undue trust in others’ answers, mindless imitating them. In the diverse groups, across ethnicities and locales, participants were more likely to distinguish between wrong and accurate answers. Diversity brought cognitive friction that enhanced deliberation.

To step back from the goal of diverse classrooms would deprive all students , regardless of their racial or ethnic background, of the opportunity to benefit from the improved cognitive performance that diversity promotes.

Taking the immediately above, and quite justifiably substituting “Indian” for “black” and “Indian- Canadian” for “African-American” leads one to the fair conclusion that the present education aims and policies of  Messrs. Atleo and Coon Come, and all the rest of the Indian industry, if brought to any kind of fruition,  will constitute almost deliberate educational malpractice against Indian-Canadian  youth- and shockingly, not putting their best interests first. What is already a very bad academic and life situation for them will only worsen.

There’s another important reason why Indians-only schools are harmful- they hurt democracy.

Our public school systems not only advance personal achievement. They also prepare young Canadians to advance the interests of society as a whole. By providing young people with daily exposure to others of different races, backgrounds and perspectives, they help create civic understanding and tolerance- they bring about civic assimilation and integration- they civically “Canadianize” young people.

Erna Paris:

Canada succeeded by actively supporting ethnic and religious multiculturalism, believing that children educated together in the country’s public schools and hockey arenas would emerge as integrated citizens. {note]From From Tolerance to Tyranny, above.[/note]

Public schools thus help bind the citizenry together and create a healthier democracy.

Indians-only schools , like religion-based schools, help bind the citizenry apart, and thus they hurt democracy. 13

In any event, there is presently no body of Indian “traditional knowledge” being used and practiced on a daily basis anywhere in Canada, or which could possibly be significantly useful or relevant in the teaching of such science and technology-based disciplines as mining or forestry. If there is, let it be shared and taught in public schools, where everyone, of all races and ethnicities, can benefit from it.

There is little Indian “traditional culture” being practiced or lived on a daily basis anywhere in Canada. All that is mainly lost and in the distant past. To the extent that it still exists, let it be shared in public schools with students of all racial and ethnic backgrounds.

And, as stated, native values today are no more nor less than the values of all human beings the world over. They are not special, unique or superior in any way.

“Indigenous teachings” is just another phrase denoting romantic, baseless, anti-intellectual, non-scientific, new age malarky, the teaching of which, again, only guarantees after graduation the swiftest of return to the hapless, cheated student’s old bedroom in his or her parent’s house back on the reserve.

“First nations control of first nations education,” in addition to all the above reasons, is a proven bad idea. It was tried at First Nations University in Regina. It was a total failure, rife as it was with financial mismanagement, incompetence and internecine warfare.

It imported the destructive political pathologies associated with Aboriginal governments.

(Calvin Helin, Dances With Dependency, (above- the words used in a different aboriginal context, but apt nonetheless.)

The Indian students were totally gypped by the improperly supervised, totally out-of–their-depth Indian administrators. It wasn’t totally these inept Indian administrators’ fault that this fiasco occurred. After all, it took “dead white European male” university administrators about 400 years to develop the financial and administrative skills and procedures to properly run a credible, educational degree-granting institution. So why should anyone have expected a group of local Indian leaders, who were put into their positions purely for reasons relating to political correctness, with little or no supervision and little or no formal education or training, to be able to figure that out in a few short months or years? It was folly and the worst kind of fretful political correctness on the part of the non-Indian elites who made the decisions to organize and fund that educational Potemkin institution.

The same type of thing will surely happen if the demands in this area of Mr. Atleo, Mr. Coon Come and the Assembly of First Nations, and those of all the other Indian lobby groups pressing for this, are met.

Professional, trained administrators and educators, Indian or not, should be in charge of the education of all our young people, completely free from the unqualified and otherwise inappropriate control of the racially obsessed Indian industry. The best interests of young Indian-Canadians demand no less.

And most importantly, to serve the best interests of Indian children, both in terms of academic achievement and life outcomes for them, they should not be going to Indians-only schools, which smack of benign and misguided racism. Rather, their best interests are served if they go to school with children of all the other races, religions and ethnicities that make up the rich, nurturing and rewarding Canadian mosaic.

  1. Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka 347 U.S. 483 (1954)
  2. Do Aboriginal Focus Schools Help or Hurt Students?CBC Radio, The 180, hosted by Jim Brown, October 29th, 2015
  3. Translation is an act of shared humility, The Globe and Mail, August 12th, 2015
  4. FromIdentity The Demand For Dignity and The Politics of Resentment, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York, 2018. Italics added
  5. The Globe and Mail, 2 June 2010.
  6. Ontario First Nations and Ottawa sign self-governing education agreement, The Globe & Mail, August 16, 2017
  7. From her essay Imagination and Community, in When I Was a Child I Read Books, above.
  8. David Brooks, The Benedict Option, The New York Times, March 14, 2017
  9. In The Origins of TotalitarianismHannah Arendt refers approvingly to the phrase “the genuine equal plurality of peoples in whose complete multitude alone mankind can be realized.”
  10. Marcus Gee, The mounting case for a single public school system in Ontario, Globe and Mail, March 24, 2018
  11. David L. Kirp, Making Schools Work. The New York Times, 20 May 2012.
  12. December 9, 2015
  13. This idea was brought into sharper focus for me by Erika Christakis’ opinion piece, The War on Public Schools, in the October 2017 issue of The Atlantic.

By: Peter Best