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Canada should look at how other countries deal with aboriginal education

John Ibbitson is a CIGI senior fellow, an award-winning writer and leading political journalist in Canada. Currently on a one-year leave from The Globe and Mail, John is researching, writing and speaking on Canadian foreign policy at CIGI while he works on a new book.

Stephen Harper will almost certainly continue to ignore the growing calls for a public inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women. He has no intention of launching an expensive investigation that will lead to new demands for increased government funding.

But beyond the roundtable meeting proposed by the premiers this week, there is another practical step that might yield dividends: a comparative study of how other countries grapple with aboriginal education.

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The greatest failure of the Harper majority government does not involve Senate expenses or stalled Pacific trade talks. It involves the collapse of the First Nations Education Act. This groundbreaking legislation would have led to the creation of regional or provincial First Nations school boards that combined native control over curriculum with a firm adherence to provincial standards.

Native-controlled school boards could have greatly improved the quality of First Nations education on reserves. Though education challenges are linked to challenges in housing, health, substance abuse and family stability, if there is one way to break the cycle, education is that way. You want to reduce the number of aboriginal women who are victims of violence? Help them graduate from high school.

That is why the bill had the support of Shawn Atleo, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, and Mr. Harper, who was prepared to commit $1.9-billion on improving First Nations education on reserve.

But other chiefs, worried about losing control over their education budgets, rebelled, forcing Mr. Atleo to resign and the government to put the bill on hold. With that failure, we have consigned another generation of aboriginal children to lousy schools and poor graduation rates. Frankly, it's a travesty.

But maybe someone else, somewhere, has come up with a better way to educate aboriginal youth. Maybe we could import that knowledge. It couldn't hurt to find out.

There are four Arctic nations with Inuit populations: Canada, the United States (Alaska), Russia and Denmark (Greenland). What challenges do Inuit people outside Canada face in educating their young? How do national governments approach these issues? Do Inuit in Alaska fare better or worse in terms of education than those in Canada? Are the Danes doing a better or worse job of tackling education in Greenland? (I should note that the Inuit already share their experiences through the Inuit Circumpolar Council.)

Australia and New Zealand are both former British colonies. How do their governments handle aboriginal education? Are either of them producing better outcomes than Canada, where only 40 per cent of First Nations youth on reserve graduate from high school, a figure unchanged from a generation ago?

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To sum it all up: Is anyone, anywhere, doing a better job of repairing the damages of attempted assimilation, of isolation, of accompanying social and economic dysfunction than Canada has managed through its failed aboriginal education policies?

At all costs, such a study should avoid the academic and stress the practical. At least half of the participants should be aboriginal. One intriguing outcome might be the creativity and innovation that result when, say, Maori, aboriginal Australians and First Nations get together to compare notes. Who knows what such cross-fertilization of experiences might produce?

Though funded by governments, the study should avoid participation by governments. Bureaucrats and politicians should be kept as far away from this project as academics and lawyers. Aboriginal teachers, students, entrepreneurs or even journalists would make better candidates. Any non-aboriginal participants should be directly involved in delivering education programs and services to aboriginal communities. And they should be a minority on the panel, or perhaps excluded completely.

The panel should not take long to study the issue. A report outlining best practices and other recommendations could be ready within a year of getting started. Nor, in an age of video conferencing, need such a project be expensive.

This modest proposal doesn't even begin to pretend to offer anything in the way of a comprehensive solution to educating aboriginal populations. But it is always better to know than to not know. If other jurisdictions are having greater success at closing the gap in graduation rates than we are, this might be a good way to find out about it.

Though frankly, getting the chiefs to endorse the First Nations Education Act would be better still.

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Along with other CIGI experts, Mr. Ibbitson will be contributing at www.cigionline.org/blogs, where this post was originally published.

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About the Author
Writer-at-large

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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