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Creating Space, Closing Gaps


Creating Space, Closing Gaps

Sara General


As stated in last week’s blog, this week I want to explore the idea of ‘gaps’.  In particular the ‘education gap’, the ‘achievement gap’ and the knowledge gap.  What are they, and how are they defined?  It’s a good time to be thinking about these different kinds of gaps and what they mean.

That’s because last Friday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and National Chief Shawn Atleo announced a ‘retooled’ plan for First Nations education that included the notion of jointly developed legislation, financial resources for operation and maintenance and a renaming of the education legislation to the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act.  When asked about how much control First Nations would have, Prime Minister Harper is said to have replied, “Well, there has to be standards.”  Which begs the question – whose standards?

In the hours following the announcement, individuals and organizations tweeted their reactions or released statements to the press.  Some First Nation communities and organizations reaffirmed their rejection of the legislation or expressed they were feeling cautious and wanted to hear more details.  I think it’s possible that many members of the general public would not really understand why First Nations were not more excited. And I also think that this lack of understanding originates from what is called the knowledge gap.  But let’s start with the other two first – just what exactly are the education and achievement gaps?

Quick Notes:


The Education Gap

  • The education gap is measured by the length of time it will take First Nations to catch up with the graduation rates of mainstream Canadian student.  Estimated at 27 – 28 years by these reports by Auditor General Sheila Fraser.

The Achievement Gap

  • Sometimes measured by comparing high school graduation rates of provincial and First Nation students.
  • Also measured by comparing standardized testing scores of provincial and First Nation schools.   (Think EQAO for Ontario)
  • In Ontario, a stated goal of the First Nations, Métis and Inuit Policy Framework.

This report also does a good job of describing the achievement gap, as well as the knowledge gap and the resource gap.

Knowledge Gap

When I say knowledge gap, what I mean is that a lot of people are not aware that Indigenous Peoples have inherent rights (rights that cannot be delegated by another government) and treaty rights (rights that flow from internationally recognized legal arrangements and that allow non-Indigenous to settle on Indigenous peoples territories and share in the resources) that pertain to education.

And while this is what I see, I also realize, I personally can’t blame people for not having the benefit of the whole story.  Provincial curriculum doesn't really teach the history of the Treaties and the importance of the treaty relationship, choosing instead to situate events like Idle No More as incidents within a Canadian social, historical and political landscape as it does in the Canadian and World Studies Grade 9 and 10 Curriculum.

Now I realize that some people are happy that at least Idle No More got a mention here, but there are big, huge, gaping opportunities missed all throughout this document to simply state what the Treaty rights of non-Indigenous people actually are and then explore how to make the relationship more empowering for everyone – all the while teaching how/why governments are organized in such and such a way.  I’m going to be picking on this particular curriculum in future posts a bit but not because I’m trying to be mean - because I genuinely want to find ways to create more space for building understanding using the tools available.  Stay tuned.

Mind the Gaps

So.  We’ve established there are gaps.   But those gaps are more than numbers. They’re people, humans, spirits.  They’re students who are not interested or not doing well with the curriculum and system that Ontario or other provinces have designed.  (Mind you – this doesn’t mean that every student is doing poorly, there are those who are doing quite well, I’m sure). They are kids who feel like the schools don’t support who they are and want them to check their identity at the door. And sometimes, students are deciding they don’t want to walk through that door at all. It appears that policy makers want to see these incidents as symptoms of an education and achievement gap that when closed, will reap vast economic benefits for the growth domestic product of Canada.

I think these are assumptions are made and perpetuated because of the prevailing lack of understanding about who Indigenous Peoples actually are and what relationship actually exists by way of Treaty and other constructive arrangements.  There are things that mainstream education policy and decision makers simply don’t know about Indigenous Peoples - and it shows.  But there's no indication that the ministries of education are going to create awareness of fundamental concepts like Treaties, self-determination, and Indigenous rights and responsibilities any time soon.  Fine.

That doesn’t mean that First Nations have to follow suit and do the same – much less be judged for what they do according to standards controlled and set by legislation designed by Indian and Northern Affairs (which are provincial standards, really).   There are other gaps that First Nations are concerned about that are just as (if not more) important than whether or not our kids can describe the parliamentary system.  Here’s one that comes to mind and because I can’t think of a more creative name just yet, let’s call it the language stabilization gap.

  • How many years will it take for us to increase the number of speakers that we have of our Indigenous languages?
  • What is our vision for language learning?  What are our principles? Our values?
  • What measures will we need to take and who will take them?  When?
  • How will we empower our students to love learning? To be accepting and supportive of their classmates?
  • How will we encourage parents and communities to take part in the learning process?
  • What policy supports will need to be in place to meaningfully support language learner?
  • Who will develop the resources?
  • How will we build interdisciplinary subjects like non-indigenous concepts of language, science and technology into our plan?
  • And, how will we make sure these subjects don’t take over as they have in the past and sometimes are doing today?

Do More with Less

I haven’t been to every First Nation community out there, but of the ones I have visited there are tons of good ideas and plans about how to answer these questions – many of them inspired by their Nation’s original instructions and beliefs.  For myself, I truly believe communities are the best placed to close the gaps that are the most important to them. But even when a community decides the most important gap is a language and culture gap, there’s still pressure on those communities to simultaneously close the gaps that matter to the federal and provincial government, and always with less funding than their provincial counterparts. Not only is this is unacceptable, it’s not clear that the new education plan will do anything to alter this dynamic.

At this point, the pretence of change is all I really see being offered with the new education plan, although it’s being heralded by the AFN as ‘historic’.  It’s hardly difficult to commit money prior to an election and since four major education programs will sunset (end) in 2015 it’d be very easy to re-profile those program dollars and make it look like a new announcement.  But the next few weeks will be more telling.  Until then, here is some early analysis of the proposed education plan, courtesy of the Chiefs of Ontario, the First Nations Education Council of Quebec and Pam Palmater.

I may sound jaded here, but I have no illusions that the AFN is going to stand up for our inherent right to education – I’m not really sure they can see how they might be compromising it in the first place.  But happily, they aren’t rights holders or the real change makers.  We are.  People are.  Our community members are.

So what do we really think? What standards matter most to us? What are our principles and standards about language use in school or across Turtle Island? How do we want our kids to feel in class? What are our principles and standards about teaching?  About creating classroom communities? About learning and collaboration? What gap do we most want to close?

And how are we going to close it?