It is not with fondness that Garry Ewen looks back on his education in the public system.
It was 13 years of underlying racism, classroom struggles, and feeling culturally muted every time he walked through his school’s doors, says the Sto:lo native.
“[Classmates] would say things about natives and drinking, or natives acting like gangsters, or aboriginal people being dirty or homeless, which was completely not the case for most of us,” says Ewen, now 33.
“You have to have tough skin in order to be an aboriginal in school, because often you’re the only one in the class.”
By the time he’d finished Grade 12 in 2001, still requiring two courses for graduation, he’d had enough. Ewen quit, becoming yet another of Chilliwack’s unsuccessful aboriginal graduation numbers.
His story is not an anomaly.
Statistically, B.C.’s public education system has failed aboriginal students for decades.
While both Chilliwack and the province have seen improvements with aboriginal graduation rates over the last few years, there is still a significant gap separating First Nations youth from the rest of the student population.
It’s a chasm that Tyrone McNeil, president of the First Nations Education Steering Committee, says will remain if schools don’t make curriculum more culturally relevant for aboriginal students.
“In too many ways, the public education system is irrelevant to First Nations students. They don’t see themselves in that regard. They’re detached from the curriculum.”
And that, he maintains, leads to continued failure.
In the 2012-13 school year, 59.4 per cent of aboriginal students in B.C. graduated within six years of starting Grade 8, according to a ministry of education’s annual report. Comparatively, 83.6 per cent of all students completed in the same time frame.
In Chilliwack, 56.7 per cent of aboriginal students graduated, compared to 78 per cent for all students. That’s an improvement from 45.4 per cent in 2009-10.
“There has been a significant amount of change in terms of outcomes for First Nations education in the public system. We acknowledge that, but it’s not nearly enough,” says McNeil. “It’s too slow.”
Ten native bands are represented in Chilliwack. From those, 1,885 First Nations students attended Chilliwack schools last year, amounting to approximately 16 per cent of the total school population.
The school district has tried for years to make inroads into becoming more inclusive for its aboriginal students.
It formed an aboriginal advisory committee in 1994 which is still running, and includes both educators and representatives from the local First Nations communities.
In 1998, it started teaching Halq’eméylem to kindergarten classes to help revive the region’s fledgling native language. It was the first school district in B.C. to do so.
When the ministry of education approved aboriginal-centric courses in 2008, including B.C. First Nations Studies and English First Peoples, the school district committed to offering them.
In 2010, Chilliwack school district entered into a four-year Aboriginal Education Enhancement Agreement, the first of its kind that’s become a template for other school districts to follow.
In an emailed statement to The Progress, assistant superintendent Rohan Arul-Pragasam didn’t speak specifically to the aboriginal issue, but said the “collective goal is to focus on all students and to ensure that we have appropriate, timely, coordinated continuum of interventions to support all students, especially those vulnerable students that have the potential to drop out from school.”
Not enough, says McNeil.
Aboriginal students are still encumbered by racism and negative predispositions in public schools.
“Too many teachers, too many school staff, expect our kids not to do well – that’s an expectation,” says McNeil.
“The systemic racism and bias that’s prevalent in Canada, it’s still thriving. There’s all kinds of efforts battling it, but the undertows of it is still just as strong now as it was 10, 15, 20 years ago. And that plays out in classrooms every day.”
Aboriginal kids are struggling, says McNeil. Teachers don’t know how to relate to them or communicate with them.
“I don’t know if they’ve given up over time, or if they were never interested from the start.”
Elia Julian didn’t want to find out.
The 21-year-old Skwah native spent years denying her First Nations existence in Chilliwack schools. She couldn’t control her ethnicity or her skin colour, or the negative thoughts people associated with her people, but she could control how much they knew about her.
Instead of embracing her native roots, Julian told people she was Hawaiian.
“Most people had negative opinions about my people and I was already facing my own issues at home,” she says. “I didn’t need that at school.”
The oldest of six, Julian didn’t grow up with her parents. She was shuffled through six different homes – many unstable. Concentrating on school was not easy.
“Most aboriginal students do face different struggles – more so than simple adolescence,” she says. “Sometimes the struggles that First Nations students face are things that are out of our control.”
Even though Julian had access to aboriginal support workers and an aboriginal room at Chilliwack secondary, she still felt misunderstood and pre-judged by some of her teachers and principals.
“Knowing that we’re not expected to succeed is frustrating and really hard to swallow,” says Julian, who graduated on time in 2011. “It makes it really hard to want to push to do great.”
The cost of continuing to fail First Nations children and youth educationally is exponential.
A 2010 report, Investing in Aboriginal Education: An Economic Perspective, conducted by the Centre for the Study of Canadian Living Standards, estimates that $39 billion in costs will be incurred on the Canadian economy by 2026 if education is not improved for First Nations. On the flip side, if the educational gap is closed, the economy could be boosted by $115 billion over the 20-year period from 2006 to 2026.
“If the status quo continues, the whole scenario of dependency that’s been put on us continues,” says McNeil. “Do they want to sustain First Nations dependency on Canada, or do they want to assist us to be thriving and a positive reflection of Canada?”
Despite the system, some aboriginal youth and adults are achieving success elsewhere.
Last June, 13 years after he should have graduated from the public system, Ewen finally obtained his graduation credentials – thanks to Seabird Island College.
The on-reserve college offers a dual-track education program that enables students to achieve their Dogwood completion while working towards an employable trade or other such profession. Since opening in 2010, enrolment has continued to flourish. Last year, approximately 115 mature students obtained their Dogwood through Seabird Island College.
“Education is life-changing and it’s generationally life-changing,” says Diane Janzen, education manager at Seabird Island Band and former Chilliwack school trustee.
“When a student doesn’t graduate, it’s not about their failure; it’s about our failure, our inability to provide education that’s relevant.”
When Ewen finally received his official ministry of education transcripts in the mail for his Dogwood completion, the normally chatty man was rendered speechless.
Even though he’d taken college courses over the years, it was his Dogwood that gave him an ultimate sense of achievement.
“I was just like, ‘Oh! Wow!’ “
Aboriginal kids are struggling, says Tyrone McNeil, president of the First Nations Education Steering Committee. Teachers don’t know how to relate to them or communicate with them.
Building relevancy into the classroom
Changing the curriculum isn’t enough. The public school mindset needs to change.
That’s the sentiment of Chilliwack’s aboriginal communities with regards to the provincial public education system.
Because aboriginal culture is more about hands-on learning, many native youth don’t acclimate well to sitting in a desk, reading from textbooks and listening to lectures for hours. They need physical interaction.
“Having an instructor that explores different avenues for education, visually, audibly, hands-on, really exercises your brain in a way that you can better grasp the concept,” says former Chilliwack secondary student Garry Ewen, who dropped out of the public system just shy of graduating.
Ewen struggled with understanding math all through school. He fell behind in the primary grades and never caught up. It wasn’t until he went to Seabird Island College, several years after quitting high school, that he found math success.
“Everybody has different learning styles and some schools don’t cater to that,” says Ewen. “At Seabird College, the teachers do textbook work, but they also use visuals and hands-on. I got to grasp some of the concepts in a different learning method.”
When the B.C. Ministry of Education approved the English First Peoples curriculum in 2008, after more than 10 years of working on it, there was celebration among the Chilliwack aboriginal communities.
English First Peoples is the equivalent to English language arts but with a Sto:lo focus.
Finally, there was a language course relevant to who they are.
But today, unlike B.C. First Nations Studies 12, which was approved around the same time as EFP, and offered at all high schools last year, only one school offered English First Peoples – Chilliwack secondary.
School district officials say it comes down to student interest. If not enough students sign up, the course can’t run. But Tyrone McNeil, president of the First Nations Education Steering Committee, says several students he’s talked to weren’t aware the course exists.
“Too many of them haven’t been asked if they’re interested in taking it. They haven’t been given the opportunity.”
It boils down to knowledge and support.
“That’s all our kids need – a little bit of encouragement, a teacher that expects them to do better, expects them to do well, to pass, to come in every day,” says McNeil.
“But that lesson isn’t passed on to our kids often enough.”
As of 2012, all B.C. trained teachers are required to take a minimum of three credits or the equivalent in First Nations pedagogy and issues related to the historical and current context of First Nations, Inuit and Metis learners.