Thursday June 21st was National Aboriginal Day. First celebrated in 1996, it is a day for all Canadians to recognize the cultures of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples and their contributions to Canadian society.
National Aboriginal Day is also a good time to think about the dismal and ongoing legacy of colonialism and racism here in Saskatchewan and across Canada, as well as to remember all the treaty promises that were made and have been broken.
All Canadians benefit from the treaties signed between First Nations and the Canadian government. Regina, for example, is situated on land ceded under Treaty 4 in 1874. Under Treaty 4, Cree and Salteux First Nations relinquished most of current day southern Saskatchewan. In return, they received small parcels of land, as well as long-term government commitments in a number of areas, including education.
First Nations have kept their side of the treaty agreements. The Canadian government, on the other hand, has frequently failed to recognize its treaty commitments. Education, “the new buffalo,” as Blair Stonechild terms it, is one of the areas in which the government has broken its treaty promises.
BROKEN PROMISES: EDUCATION
RESIDENTIAL SCHOOLS: 1884–1996
Under Treaty 4, the government promised “to maintain a school on the reserve, allotted to each band, as soon as they settle on said reserve.” Instead, the government implemented the genocidal residential school system, with the aim of assimilating First Nations into European-Canadian society–of “killing the Indian in the child.”
Attendance at the schools was compulsory for all children aged 6-15. Parents who failed to send their children willingly had their children taken from them forcibly.
Students were required to live on school premises and most had no contact with their families for up to 10 months at a time and sometimes for years. The attempt to force assimilation also involved punishing the children for speaking their own languages or practising their cultures.
All students at residential schools experienced cultural abuse. As is now well known, many students were also subjected to physical and sexual abuse. A lesser known fact is that the mortality rate at some schools reached 69%–caused by overcrowding, poor food and sanitation, and a lack of medical care.
In 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized to First Nations for the residential school system.
RESERVE SCHOOLS: 2011
●Some reserves still do not have schools and children must leave their families and communities to attend school. ●Schools on reserves are funded by the federal government, while non-reserve schools receive their funding from the provinces. ●The federal government typically provides less money for schools and education than do the provinces. When this happens the provinces usually do not top up federal funding. ●As a result, many First Nations children and youth get an unequal education just because they are First Nations and living on a reserve.
THE EDUCATION GAP: 5 FACTS
1. A child who attends school on a reserve receives on average $2,000 a year less in government funding than a child in a provincial school.
2. Unlike provincial governments, the federal government does not provide funding for such things as libraries, computers, extracurricular activities, special education, or the development of culturally-appropriate curricula.
3. Because of underfunding, many First Nations schools are in poor condition and present health concerns, including overcrowding, extreme mould, and high carbon dioxide levels.
4. The high school dropout rate for on-reserve schools across Canada is 50.9%, as compared to an 8.5% dropout rate for all other schools in Canada.
5. The high school graduation rate for on-reserve schools in Saskatchewan is 38%, as compared to 90.5% for schools in the provincial education system.
According to the website of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, “The Government of Canada is committed to ensuring that Aboriginal peoples enjoy the same education opportunities as other Canadians.”
EDUCATION, NOT PRISONS!
Under the Harper government’s new tough-on-crime legislation, prisons have begun to replace education as a major social service provided to First Nations.
- While Aboriginal people comprise only 11% of the population of Saskatchewan, they make up 81% of the prison population.
- Systemic racism, along with an on-going history of colonialism, accounts for the over-representation of Aboriginal peoples in the Canadian prison system. For example, studies show that Aboriginal defendants more often receive sentences involving incarceration than non-Aboriginal defendants.
- The over-representation of a group of people in a prison population is self-perpetuating. Imprisonment increases rates of crime, poverty, family breakdown, and educational failure.