Doug Cuthand: Indigenous education means more than graduation rates

Formal education is important and should not be taken lightly, but traditional education holds the key to our survival as Indigenous people.

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In her annual report, Tara Clemett, the provincial auditor, expressed her concern that the graduation rate for Indigenous students was below 50 per cent. We have been on this plateau for several years now.

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About half of Saskatchewan’s Indigenous people live off the reserve and the province doesn’t have jurisdiction on reserves, so the facts are incomplete.

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I have been unable to find an overall provincial on- and off-reserve graduation rate, so the amount could be greater or lesser.

In any event it’s too low, but it’s important to take a long view of history in this case. In the past the rate was practically zero. As soon as students reached 16, they quit and didn’t return.

It was a damning indictment on the boarding schools. Later, as more days schools were developed the rate increased, but not much.

The interest in education took a turn for the better in the 1970s when the movement for Indian control of education took hold and schools were built on reserves that stressed an Indigenous approach to education.

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Previously, education meant leaving home. It was substandard, and parents failed to see the importance of it. We had no role off the reserve other than labourers and farm hands, so an education was of little value.

With Indigenous control, the horizon opened up and more opportunities were revealed.

The Federation of Saskatchewan Indians, as it was then called, fostered post-secondary institutions, including the First Nations University of Canada and the Saskatchewan Indian Institute of Technologies, which provided both academic and skill training.

The graduation rates in these institutions have been steadily increasing on the increase.

We need to re-examine Indigenous education and to improve outcomes. Our students have been so many round pegs that are pounded into the square holes of the one-size-fits-all formula of provincial education.

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My dad grew up on a reserve that had a day school, but the parents involved themselves in the traditional aspect of their children’s upbringing.

For example, most of the students — including dad — didn’t attend until they were eight years old. Instead, they stayed at home where they learned the traditions, family histories and the old songs.

Many like my father were taught how to read and write in Cree syllabics. By the time my father and his siblings began school, he could already read and write in Cree.

In the 1800s and early 1900s, the Cree people had among the highest rates of literacy in the world, approaching 99 per cent in the north.

Education was a family enterprise. The elders told the family history and old stories. They gave life lessons of how to respect each other and themselves.

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The women would teach the value and application of various plants as medicine. Trapping, hunting and fishing were the means of livelihood, and all children received a strong grounding in how to survive.

My father began a scholarship for the best all-around graduating student at our reserve school. We present it annually and the winner usually goes on to university.

One year, the winner didn’t go on to formal higher education; instead she stayed with her family and worked with horses. Her family had a long tradition of raising and training horses and she was learning from her grandparents and other family members.

It made me realize that education doesn’t have to be in a classroom or an institution. This young woman was receiving a valuable education that she couldn’t receive anywhere else.

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While formal education is important and should not be taken lightly and we need to heed the message from the provincial auditor, traditional education holds the key to our survival as Indigenous people.

Young people need to spend time on the land and gain the traditional knowledge of survival that our people have sustained for generations. Speaking an Indigenous language was considered a liability; now it’s an asset and our students need to keep it alive.

We need to use our own metric when it comes to the importance of education. It’s important that education continues throughout one’s life. Our population is rapidly growing and will continue.

This makes graduation rates and both formal and informal education more important than ever.

Doug Cuthand is the Indigenous affairs columnist for the Saskatoon StarPhoenix and the Regina Leader-Post. He is a member of the Little Pine First Nation.

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