Native Leaders Push for Separate School Boards

Kristy Hutter, Globe and Mail (Toronto), December 11, 2009

After numerous failed attempts to reduce crime among their youth, native leaders and communities in Manitoba and Saskatchewan are proposing aboriginal school boards, a controversial idea even among first nations.

Although some cities, such as Winnipeg, already have a few schools for aboriginal young people, criminal activity has not gone down significantly. From 1998 to 2008, the number of young aboriginals in Manitoba’s correctional system doubled, Statistics Canada says.

As part of Winnipeg’s Live SAFE crime prevention policy, city council asked its social planning council and the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce to brainstorm with members of the community for ways to prevent violent crime. From this came the idea of a school system for natives.

Manitoba’s Minister of Aboriginal and Northern Affairs, Eric Robinson, said he does not support the idea and compared it to residential schools, the system in which he was educated.

“I don’t want my people to be ghettoized,” he said. “We came from that system already. I don’t want to see a system like that repeated.”

He recommended other methods of preventing crime rather than going to “an extreme that hasn’t been thought out.”

But University of Saskatchewan sociologist Terry Wotherspoon said that such a system might prevent aboriginal students from feeling segregated by providing them with opportunities to express themselves in a non-threatening environment.

“There is this feeling among a lot of aboriginal students, either directly or indirectly, that they are already ghettoized, and already voiceless within the current system.”

He said crime is common among young aboriginals because of the disconnection between life in and outside school, and suggested that an aboriginal system might establish a connection.

“The idea behind it is that if there is more of a sense of community and more of a sense of connection within the school, then there will be less inclination to find community outside in the streets,” Dr. Wotherspoon said. “That’s what the gangs have done. They have been able to recruit because they provide a sense of community and accomplishment that kids may not get in other venues like schools.”

Native leaders in Saskatchewan have been discussing the idea of an aboriginal board for some time, and are about to begin talks with the province. Winnipeg has yet to make an official proposal to the provincial government.

Aboriginal Council of Winnipeg president Damon Johnston said that having a separate school board for aboriginals would help children develop self-esteem and confidence, which may not be happening in regular public schools. He said lack of self-worth may lead to crime.

“Individuals who are in a healthy environment are much less likely to be antisocial in any way,” he said. “If we are in a situation where we feel bad about ourselves, then it’s going to affect our psyche. It creates resentment and anger, which lead to poor behaviours.”

Mr. Johnston said that by learning and protecting their language and cultural traditions, children may flourish instead of feeling isolated.

A proposal from the Toronto District School Board to open an Afrocentric school in an attempt to reduce crime among black children raised a similar debate two years ago. Opinions that it promoted black segregation outweighed the view that it promoted self-determination, and the idea was dropped. But a year later, the board voted in favour of the proposal and the school has been up and running since September with no major problems.

A school system for francophones was established in Winnipeg 16 years ago, which supporters of the new proposal have called the precedent for an aboriginal board.

Dolly Daniels has three grandchildren at Winnipeg’s aboriginal elementary school, Niji Mahkwa. She said the province would benefit from having an aboriginal school board because it needs more schools like that one and the aboriginal high school, Children of the Earth.

“My grandchildren learn a lot. They learn about the culture and they learn about the language, which is something I have always wanted to learn,” she said. “People should really come to our schools and see what we do. We do great things with our students.”

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