Aboriginal education should be a priority

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Inclusion and finances are two major deterrents

Tannara Yelland
CUP Prairies & Northern Bureau Chief

SASKATOON (CUP) — High school was a challenge for Devon Fiddler, who tried both on- and off-reserve secondary education in an attempt to find a proper fit.

Fiddler, the vice-president of aboriginal relations for the Indigenous Students’ Council at the University of Saskatchewan, thinks one of the ways to get more Aboriginal students to enter and finish post-secondary school is to work on the state of secondary education. She would like to see it adapt to fit the needs and experiences of aboriginal students.

Finding a way to get more aboriginal students both into and graduated from post-secondary education is a desperate problem in Canada.

Despite the fact that they are the fastest-growing population in Canada, only eight per cent of aboriginal youth achieve post-secondary qualifications. Among First Nations youth, only four per cent of students finish post-secondary education.

As an ISC vice-president and an aboriginal student herself, Fiddler has both a first-hand and a more general understanding of the reasons why so few students make it through university or college.

“Many of the problems stem from the state of secondary education, which could be both on- and off-reserve,” Fiddler said. “Within off-reserve secondary institutions, First Nations often face discrimination based on stereotypes, affecting the grades of the students … there is a lack of First Nations knowledge, history, and cultural systems.”

On-reserve high schools are not always much better, though staff and faculty better understand there than elsewhere the challenges their students face. Fiddler, who attended both school systems, says she preferred her on-reserve high school.

While she admits the off-reserve high school she attended had a better curricular program, Fiddler felt isolated and discriminated against. When she moved to a reserve high school, her grades improved and she began to join extra-curricular activities.

“I have seen many friends and family come to university, but drop out, get kicked out, or take a few years longer in university than the regular timeline,” Fiddler said. “Where they attended high school was a major factor in where they went in university, if they stayed, dropped out, or got kicked out.”

As CEO of the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation, Roberta Jamieson is interested in the economics of aboriginal involvement in post-secondary education. Jamieson says there is a “solid business case” for getting more aboriginal students to finish school.

“We know there’s a desire” in the aboriginal community to get more education, Jamieson said. “Students tell us lack of financial support is their number one barrier.”

The NAAF dispensed approximately $15.6 million in scholarships and bursaries to aboriginal students between 2004 and 2009. However, in the 2008-09 academic year they were only able to provide 27 per cent of the funding that was applied for.

Jamieson says the economic investment in aboriginal students is well worth it, and that this argument often gets lost in debates about how to help more Aboriginal students finish school.

“There are those who will argue from the rights perspective, or the social justice perspective,” Jamieson said of aboriginal education. “It’s also a sound investment to put money into aboriginal students achieving education, and I think that point gets lost.

“Especially in a province like Saskatchewan, where a huge proportion of students are aboriginal — they are going to be a positive force, as people with an education, or they aren’t. If they aren’t, you’ll see welfare rolls grow, you’ll see the number of aboriginal people in correctional facilities grow.”

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