Indigenous-run boarding schools could be education answer, says respected FN educator

Harvey McCue
Special to APTN National News
The recent murder of a teenage Indigenous girl in Winnipeg should be a call to action, not just by the police and the justice system, not even by a commission of inquiry.

And what sort of action does this heinous crime call out for?

From the evidence available to the public to this point, Tina Fontaine was part of a broken system.

As someone who grew up on a reserve, who has watched successive governments and Indigenous leaders  fail to find durable solutions to the dysfunction that pervades too many communities, and who is a long time First Nation educator, I am deeply concerned on how best to repair this broken system.

What I propose is, doubtless, counterintuitive and will be controversial to many readers but I believe it is an option worthy of public debate.

Harvey McCue
Harvey McCue

Tina came from a damaged home where an environment of drug and alcohol abuse prevailed and, all too often, hope for a better future doesn’t exist. Sadly, this broken system exists in too many Indigenous communities, not all but in too many, and particularly in a majority that are in remote and geographically isolated regions. In these communities family and social violence, drug and alcohol abuse, sexual abuse, unsafe living conditions, boil water restrictions and overcrowding are part of the litany of sorry conditions that many Indigenous youth from one generation to the next experience in Canada in their lives daily.

What action mitigates this unhealthy and damaging environment?

Calls for more housing for all First Nation communities, not just remote ones, have been part of the national conversation between Ottawa and First Nation leaders for more than three decades, as have requests for clean water. Little headway has been made.

More money for programs to deal with family violence and drug and alcohol abuse while useful will not quickly resolve these difficult conditions but it’s apparent that more money, especially federal money, in these areas will not materialize soon, if at all. Relocating isolated communities to more southern sites without addressing the existing social issues is only a recipe for prolonged, and arguably even greater misery for residents than they now experience.

Unleashing a 21st Century version of the Peace Corps or the Company of Young Canadians to work with impoverished and dysfunctional families in isolated communities has some romantic appeal but offers little in the way of a meaningful solution.

If we desire positive and enduring changes to the status quo for indigenous youth education is the foundation that will produce them. No lasting inroads into resolving the social and material challenges that plague too many First Nation families and communities can be accomplished without substantially raising the education rates for indigenous youth. To do that will depend largely on where and how they are educated.

It is time to recognize and acknowledge that the policy to educate Indigenous youth initially in their home communities by means of the provincial curricula and then sending them to provincial high schools off reserve has failed them. Their chronically high absenteeism rates for both on reserve on off reserve schools clearly indicate they don’t want to be there even though schools on reserve offer many children and youth the only relatively safe haven from the domestic overcrowding and threat of physical and sexual abuse for at least six to seven hours daily.

Indigenous youth find little incentive to obtain a formal education and little connection to the existing education curricula taught by a majority of teachers who on one hand don’t know who they are teaching be they Haida, Cree or Saulteaux children or, on the other, are products of Native teacher education programs.

Youth and children can’t learn if they have little choice but to return daily to homes where nutritious food, potable water, love and protection from physical and psychological harm are in short supply or non-existent. Girls are extremely vulnerable to a toxic mix of threats, fears and outright abuse. Opting for the mean streets of urban Canada or suicide as many do reveals what extremes they will take to escape that vulnerability.

They all need healthy living conditions with sound nutrition, an absence of fear, and an appropriate living space.

To educate them successfully requires their removal from their unsafe and dysfunctional environments and putting them in boarding schools where the provincial curricula are replaced with ones that emphasize cultural content as well as literacy and numeracy. A successful education will require curricula and learning content where tribal values are not only reflected in what is learned but are embedded in the pedagogy.

Residential schools for Indigenous youth are a sorry and tragic chapter in Canada’s history. The fall-out from the failed experiment still haunts us today and will likely to continue to do so for some time. But the model of an indigenous boarding school where children and youth are protected from both predatory teachers and staff unlike the residential schools of the past; where the curricula focuses on academic learning that is in part defined by tribal values and traditions; where they can learn, play, and mature in a safe and supportive environment should not be dismissed out of hand simply because of the errors and mistakes of the past.

To nurture healthy and educated youth there is no substitute for a stable, safe home and community environment. But where the future offers little or no hope for either within a generation or two, then for the sake of the children, the other potential Tina Fontaines, let’s consider this model as one of several potential options.

We know that the original system of boarding schools was horribly inept. They were created for the wrong reasons, they were administered and taught by the wrong people, and worst of all, they did not protect students.

Today, we can locate new boarding schools in existing communities, allow students to return home regularly if they choose to do so, provide an academic as well as a cultural curriculum, and staff them with rigorously screened teachers and staff. That’s just an overview. Serious consideration of the model will need to address many questions, basic ones such as – at what age would children enter the schools, how many students per school, how would the host communities be selected, would they include a summer school, how would each school be evaluated and by whom?

Perhaps it goes without saying that the biggest obstacle this model faces is its undeniable parallels to the original residential school experiment. But we learn from the past and as painful and destructive as residential schools were, if society and governments can’t for whatever reason support indigenous children and youth to grow up and be educated in safe, healthy, and caring environments, then building indigenous boarding schools where those environments are a core objective should be a topic of a nation-wide discussion. It should be thoughtfully and fully examined if we seek a positive and enduring response to the tragedy that Tina Fontaine represents.

There are too many Tina Fontaines out there with too few options.

Waubageshig (Harvey McCue) is a member of the Georgina Island First Nation in Ontario and has worked for the Cree School Board in northern Quebec, the Mi’kmaq Education Authority in Nova Scotia and Aboriginal and Northern Development Canada in Ottawa.  He also helped to found Indigenous Studies at Trent University, Peterborough.

2 thoughts on “Indigenous-run boarding schools could be education answer, says respected FN educator

  1. Definitely food for thought. I am not a FN person, but I care a great deal about my FN brothers, sisters, and friends. Though this may really be a great solution, I am doubtful you would find a single person who would be willing to broach the subject, not surprisingly. You mentioned relocating communities closer to what they need, and I think that is truly worth thinking about, too. First would be finding the programs and resources that would allow these relocated people to deal with their issues, such as alcohol and drug abuse. I KNOW my FN friends and neighbors who suffer so are not loving their lives, but they need to have help to escape them. If only somebody could pinpoint what that help would look like!

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