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Atleo's tough first assignment: fixing native schools

The son of two PhDs and the first aboriginal chancellor of a B.C. university, newly elected national chief Shawn Atleo has a monumental challenge ahead if he is to fulfill his promise to address the disastrous state of native education.

Mr. Atleo, 42, represents the first generation of native leadership to have been raised outside the damaging sphere of the residential schools. His family began preparing him for a position of influence by emphasizing the importance of learning.

He earned a master's degree from a distance learning university in Australia, managed a company that trained aboriginal workers and, in addition to his work as regional chief for the Assembly of First Nations, was named chancellor of Vancouver Island University in 2008.

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But as the hereditary chief of the Ahousaht nation on Vancouver Island takes on the mantle of leadership for more than 700,000 native people across Canada, he will have to grapple with some stark facts. High-school graduation rates for native people living on reserves have remained stuck for more than a decade in the range of 40 per cent, dramatically lower than the nearly 90 per cent rate for the Canadian population as a whole. Reserve schools are significantly underfunded, and have had budget increases capped at 2 per cent a year. Anecdotally, experts say that students on reserve are typically working two years below their actual grade level.

The percentage of natives with a university degree has risen to 6 per cent, but that growth hasn't kept pace with the increase in university education among the general population. At the same time, the native population is increasing 31/2-times faster than the rest of Canada. In a modern, knowledge-based economy, experts say, education is the fundamental step toward economic independence for native people.

Former prime minister Paul Martin said Mr. Atleo, in focusing his candidacy on education, has identified an issue that will resonate with all Canadians.

"There is a level of indifference to so much of the unfairness aboriginals have suffered from historically, but I have never spoken to an audience of Canadians who haven't immediately risen to the fact that aboriginals, first nations among them, are not receiving the same level of primary and secondary school education," Mr. Martin said.

The average native student attending a reserve school receives 30 per cent less funding than a student in the provincial school system. But more money is only part of the solution, according to Michael Mendelson of the Caledon Institute of Social Policy.

"The barrier to success is that the schools on reserve are isolated village schools. They don't have any structure," Mr. Mendelson said. "You take an urban public school board and there's a mechanism for identifying and training a cadre of future principals, and principals are what make a school."

Teachers on reserve also have little job security, work in trying conditions and can be fired simply for running afoul of the chief, he said.

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"In the worst places you'll get 10 new teachers in a year. Obviously that's crazy. You're not getting any education," he said.

Mr. Mendelson has proposed that the federal government pass a first-nations education authority act that would allow reserve schools to organize themselves in districts that mimic the function of school boards - developing curriculum, overseeing performance, etc. - while maintaining the significant principle of Indian control of Indian education.

Verna Kirkness, a retired educator, was one of the architects of that policy in 1972. She said it was necessary at the time to wrest control of native schools away from Ottawa, but there's much work that needs to be done.

"We have so many kids who aren't finishing," she said. One eternal stumbling block is the lack of involvement by native parents in their children's education, which she attributes to the legacy of residential schools.

"To get parents to feel the school is their school, that takes a while. And even though we now have a lot of our own teachers in our schools, there's still a gap there. … Any leader who puts education at the forefront is certainly doing the right thing," she said.

She also wants to see a change in the way funds are distributed for postsecondary students, something the federal government has been considering for several months. Bands now give postsecondary funding to their high-school graduates, but there's no mechanism to determine who gets those funds or how much they should get. If a band has 10 graduates in a year, only four might receive funding, leaving the others with nothing, she said.

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"Once they're not in school for a year you start to lose them," Ms. Kirkness said.

Ralph Nilson, president of Vancouver Island University, where Mr. Atleo is chancellor, said the new national chief belongs to the generation of native leaders that will shape a new relationship with Canada.

"He's really got something special, and he's going to provide something special for his people. These are young, bright, capable people whose mothers and fathers were impacted by residential schools, and they understand and respect that, but recognize they have to move beyond that," Mr. Nilson said. "The whole economy is in transition and these bright young leaders recognize that the only way to move forward is if they concentrate on the youth and provide an opportunity for education."

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