Canada’s education apartheid

By Robert Green | Published October 2 by

Many Canadians are aware of the fact that Canada’s 1876 Indian Act, which stated that “The aborigines are to be kept in a condition of tutelage and treated as wards or children of the State”, was studied by South Africa’s apartheid regime and served as the inspiration for many of its policies.

Because the information gathering missions to Canada by South African officials occurred way back in the 1940’s, we can safely acknowledge and openly discuss this fact as a dark and shameful chapter of our history without having to look too closely at our present. Yes we served as a model for apartheid but that was a different time, we tell ourselves.

However an examination of Canada’s treatment of its First Nations reveals that parallels with apartheid era South Africa continue right up to present day. Nowhere is this more true than with respect to Canada’s policies regarding First Nations education.

In 1953 the apartheid regime passed one of its most overtly racist laws, entitled the Bantu Education Act. The act’s aim was to place all black schools, which had been run by the church, under the control of the state. As the government saw blacks as little more than “hewers of wood and drawers of water” it was quite open about the fact that education for blacks would be both separate and unequal. The injustices caused by this act would later be recognized as one of the principal causes of the Soweto uprising.

The education system created by the Bantu Education Act had three principal characteristics: 1) Massive gaps in funding between black and white schools; 2) Colonial control over curriculum and school management; 3) Significant differences in the level of training and experience of teachers in the black and white school systems.

Though Canada’s contemporary policies with respect to First Nations education do not go nearly as far as South Africa’s overtly racist policies, each of the above characteristics are clearly present.

Massive gaps in funding

A discriminatory funding regime was the primary mechanism by which the apartheid government ensured that the education received by blacks would remain grossly inferior to that received by whites. Funding for black schools never reached more than one tenth of the funding received by white schools.

While the funding gap between federally funded First Nations schools and their provincial counterparts is not nearly as extreme as what existed during the apartheid regime, it is nonetheless significant and growing worse by the year. This is because since 1996 annual increases to federal funding of First Nations schools have been fixed at 2 per cent. The Assembly of First Nations (AFN) estimates that average annual increases of 6.3 per cent would have been needed in order to keep up with both inflation and population increases. As a result it now points to a cumulative funding shortfall of 3 billion dollars between 1996 and 2010. One recent study found that schools on reserves in Saskatchewan received 40 to 50 per cent less than their provincially funded counterparts.

The proposed First Nations Education Act (FNEA) was touted by the Harper government as a solution to the chronic under-funding of First Nations schools. However First Nations leaders quickly saw through the government’s misleading claims. Though annual increases in funding for First Nations schools would be more than doubled by the act from 2 per cent to 4.5 per cent, this increase falls well short of the 6.3 per cent increase identified by the AFN as needed to keep up with both inflation and population growth. Nor does this funding increase even begin to address the funding shortfall of over $3 billion that has accumulated since 1996.

Colonial control

Prior to the Bantu Education Act South Africa’s black schools were under the control of church missionaries and enjoyed a degree of autonomy from the state. However with the passing of the Bantu Education Act black schools were brought under the direct control of the government. The under-funding of such schools allowed government officials to use promises of new funding as a mechanism for increased control. Making funding conditional on the acceptance of state control of curriculum and the school’s administration ensured that the system would be rapidly transformed according to the wishes of the colonial masters.

A nearly identical dynamic can be seen in Canada. While historically The Indian Act gave the Federal government exclusive responsibility for First Nations schools, more recently the FNEA has been viewed by many First Nations leaders as a renewed push for colonial control. Like the Bantu Education Act, the FNEA makes increased funding conditional on the attainment of certain objectives set not by local communities but by the federal government.

By linking such performance indicators to provincial curricula the FNEA effectively limits the control First Nations communities have over what is taught in their schools. Those schools that deviate too far from provincial curricula will not meet the standards and therefore will not get the funding.

Failure to meet government objectives can also, according to the act, cause First Nations schools to have their local administration removed and replaced with direct control by the federal government. In addition, the FNEA grants the federal Minister of Aboriginal Affairs control over who sits on the Joint Councils that are to make decisions about First Nations schools.

Since the rejection of FNEA by First Nations leaders the Harper government has given the act an Orwellian change of name. The revised act is now called the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act.

Though the name has changed the government’s colonial approach has not. Rather than broadly consulting First Nations leaders, it sought a back room deal with AFN leader Shawn Atleo. Outrage over this led to Atleo’s resignation and to Conservative Minister Valcourt urging the AFN — without a hint of irony in his voice — to “honour its signed agreement.”

Unqualified or inexperienced teachers

A final characteristic of South Africa’s apartheid era education system was the significant disparities in teacher training and experience between the white and black school systems. While in white schools all teachers were graduates of formal teacher training programs, as few as one third of those teaching in black schools were.

Thus far this situation has seen no parallel in Canada. Though teachers in First Nations schools tend to have less experience due to extraordinarily high turnover rates, at the very least teachers are required to have education degrees.

This may be about to change if an organization called Teach for Canada has its way.

Teach for Canada is modeled on a US based organization called Teach for America which has been offering a five week training program to recent university graduates (in programs other than education) followed by a placement in a teaching position in one of America’s inner city schools. While the organization, which is backed by powerful players such as the Walton family (owners of Wal-mart), touts itself as offering a peace corps like experience aimed at helping save America’s ‘failing’ inner city schools, critics see it as both a source of widening educational disparities and a tool for breaking teachers unions and staffing the semi-private charter schools that reject unionized teachers.

As it is Canada’s First Nations schools that have the most serious problems with teacher retention and poor educational outcomes for students, it is they that have been targeted first by Teach for Canada. Should the current lobbying efforts by Teach for Canada to loosen the requirements needed to teach in a public school be successful they will soon be permitted to send teachers with no more than eight weeks training into First Nations schools across Canada.

The alternative: equitable, sustainable funding and community control

While there can be no question that the Bantu Education Act was a far more oppressive education policy than anything Canada has enacted in recent years with respect to First Nations education, the fact that there is any grounds for comparison at all should be a source of outrage for all Canadians. It is our national shame that we consistently elect politicians unwilling to deal with the grotesque injustices perpetuated by government policy on First Nations education.

This is particularly true given that there has been no shortage of voices calling for an end to Canada’s educational apartheid. Way back in 1972 the precursor to the AFN issued a policy paper entitled Indian Control of Indian Education which succinctly identified the problem: “until now, decisions on the education of Indian children have been made by anyone and everyone, except Indian parents.” The solution it proposed was simple: meaningful community control and adequate funding for high quality programs and infrastructure. Since then this same point has been echoed by Royal Commissions, UN Declarations, Senate Committees, First Nations communities from coast to coast and most recently by a report by the Northern Policy Institute.

Canadians need to realize that the serious problems with First Nations education did not end with the closure of the residential schools. It’s time we stand with First Nations communities in demanding an end to Canada’s education apartheid.

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