Going to school in the 1970s wasn’t fun for St. Albert’s Maureen Ligtvoet.
“As a First Nations girl, I was bullied a lot because of the colour of my skin and who I was,” she says.
It was tough to feel she fit in when she and her siblings were physically and verbally harassed all the time. She remembers trying to scrub the dark colour out of her elbows so students would stop calling her a “dirty Indian,” and her sister changing schools because of the bullying. It was only due to the encouragement of her dad, himself a residential school survivor, that she made it through and got into post-secondary.
Even today, Ligtvoet says her kids still felt alienated going through high school and hearing their peers make racist remarks about Canada’s indigenous peoples.
“It hurts them.”
Ligtvoet’s experience is not unique. Racism against indigenous students has been embedded in Canada’s education system since the residential school era, say analysts, contributing to an achievement gap for First Nations, Métis and Inuit (FNMI) students that’s stubbornly endured for decades.
Alberta Education found that indigenous students were about twice as likely to drop out of high school last year compared to all students, for example, and about 28 per cent less likely to qualify for a Rutherford scholarship. While St. Albert’s indigenous students generally fare much better than the provincial average, they still lag the city’s general population.
St. Albert Public board members were briefed on the achievement gap last week as part of the board’s ongoing efforts to close it.
Roots in racism
There are a lot of reasons for the achievement gap, says James Dempsey, native studies professor at the University of Alberta.
One big cause is the residential school system, which left generations of students woefully unprepared for life. Baked into this system was the idea that indigenous students would always be “Indians” and always come second to everyone else, Dempsey said.
The result was multiple generations of indigenous parents with an inferiority complex and hostility towards the school system, he continues. These parents were disinclined to support their kids when they struggled in school, contributing to higher dropout rates.
Ligtvoet, who works for the St. Albert Family Resource Centre and is a member of the indigenous wisdom and guidance committee for St. Albert Public, says she still hears from First Nations, Métis and Inuit students today who feel they don’t belong at school due to how others treat them. Some feel spiritually disconnected, as they don’t see any of themselves or their culture in the curriculum. Others may have a chaotic home life, contributing to higher absenteeism.
Both St. Albert Public and Greater St. Albert Catholic have taken new steps in recent years to address the achievement gap. Both have appointed indigenous advisory panels, for example, and both now open their board meetings with an acknowledgement that they are on traditional Treaty 6 territory and the homeland of the Métis Nation.
Last fall, for the first time, GSACRD officials sat down with all 398 indigenous students in their district and created learning profiles for each, says assistant superintendent Rhonda Nixon. Officials paid particular attention to what students said helped and hindered their education, and took extra effort to share these results with parents.
One result was that they found many of these students said they had to miss classes to babysit at home, Nixon says. By putting more courses online, the district has seen a slight dip in dropout rates for indigenous students.
The board has also noticed a drop in student suspensions as, due to the learning profiles, staffers now have more contact with parents to address misbehaviour, Nixon says.
“We are seeing families be more responsive to the school because they feel they’re heard.”
The public board has been promoting the blanket exercise as a way to teach staff and students about indigenous history, said associate superintendent Marianne Barrett. Staffers at five schools have now run through it, as have all Grade 10 students at Paul Kane.
This spring, as part of the national Project of Heart initiative, students will hear talks about St. Albert’s residential school history and paint pictures on one-inch square wooden tiles of how they can effect reconciliation, Barrett said. This will result in 10,000 painted tiles that will be assembled into 94 mosaics to be unveiled in June in time for National Aboriginal Day.
Stony Plain schools have aboriginal liaison officers who help students and teachers learn more about indigenous culture, Ligtvoet says. This was of great help to her kids, and she says every high school should have such a person.
Ligtvoet says local schools now place far more emphasis on St. Albert’s Métis and First Nations roots, and that students now feel more comfortable speaking out against racism.
“Again, the key is education,” she says – staff and students need to know what Canada’s indigenous people have gone through in the last 500 years, why they are where they are today, and how we can move forward.