September is here and in cities across Canada many parents are picking up last minute supplies and clothing for the kids to go back to school. While their thoughts turn to homework assistance and lunch prep, I wonder how many of these parents worry if their kids will make it home from school alive.
This may sound pretty drastic but for some parents living in First Nations communities in Northern Ontario, this is their reality. Seven indigenous students died in Thunder Bay between 2000 and 2011. Seven families sent their young people away in pursuit of the educational keys that unlock individual success and community growth. Instead, their young people died, alone never to return home.
In northern Ontario, five high schools serve 23 First Nation communities[i]. These communities are spread across over 500,000km2[ii]. In this context, sending your child to school is no easy feat. Add to that, the fact that the available schooling on reserve only goes up to Grade 8 or 9. After this grade, parents are faced with a false dichotomy: keep their kids home OR bus their kids hundreds of kilometres away to continue their education. I say the choice is false because of the context in which education is delivered on reserve. Not only do geographic barriers exist but activists and educators like Cindy Blackstock have been fighting the economic barriers that see First Nations education underfunded in comparison to off-reserve counterparts. This includes critical infrastructure funding needed to prop up crumbling schools and rec centres (for pre-schooling and after school programs). There really is no choice at all. In these circumstances, what would you choose? Who would want to prevent their own children from attending school? No one. Indigenous people want what we all want for our children – access to a safe environment in which our kids can grow and learn. The question I struggle with is this: if Indigenous teens have to leave home to continue their education and are dying along the way, isn’t this residential school by another name?
For me, to sit by while this second wave of residential schooling carries on, is unacceptable. I’m not certain there is one solution but here’s what I do know: politicians act when votes are on the line. As non-Indigenous Canadians, we can use our positions of privilege and our collective voices to let politicians at all levels of government know that this is intolerable. How is your city councillor and mayor addressing systematic racism in municipal bodies like the police force? What types of cultural competence training are first responders and educators getting in order to interact in a respectful way with indigenous members of the community? Ask your city council what mechanisms in place to report wrong doing in this area and to follow up on remediation. Write to your MPPs and MPs about equitable educational funding for ALL and be prepared to follow through should elected officials not respond in a way that builds equity into the system. If it really does take a village, we can no longer afford to be silent. Let’s raise our voices – and our young people – together.
‘Disappointing’ response so far to 7 youth inquest recommendations, says Aboriginal Legal Services, CBC