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Important Lessons

What Grandparents Day can teach us about Indigenous Education

Recently I (Danielle) learned that the cherished annual ritual of Grandparents’ Day was unique to my Christian school background. Every year, my Grandma and Grandpa Mantel would drive from Hamilton to London to tour my classroom, slip me some peppermints and sit through an assembly. I loved it – my grandparents, at my school!

My Christian elementary school held grandparents’ days because education was a key value for the whole community – so naturally the elders of the community were included in supporting, shaping and maintaining those values.

That’s just one example of community involvement in Christian schools. I also have vivid childhood memories of sneaking to the top of stairs late at night to spy on my mom and her Education Committee friends, meeting in our living room. Then there were the bazaars, the silent auctions, the choir recitals . . . if church was the centre of our little Christian Reformed enclave, school was a close second.

Culturally Appropriate Education

This culturally appropriate education is a value that many Christian Reformed communities and Indigenous communities hold in common. Indigenous communities also want education that is shaped by their communities and involves their elders and other community members.

We know from the witness of many brave residential school survivors at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) hearings that this community control over education was and is far from the reality of Indigenous communities, during the residential school era and still today. Indigenous education, particularly on-reserve education, continues to be chronically under-funded. Schools on reserve receive 30 to 40 percent less funding per student per year than provincially-run schools, with the gap differing from province to province. They also lack the culturally appropriate curriculum and parental involvement that made a world of difference in Christian schools. But if cultural assimilation through schooling was the wrong move, culturally appropriate education within Indigenous communities is the right one. As Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Senator Murray Sinclair, often observed, “Education got us into this mess and education will get us out.”

Share Values, Shared Cause

Since 2010, the Christian Reformed Centre for Public Dialogue has been doing research and advocacy on reconciliation in Indigenous Education. Indigenous leaders and communities have told us that reconciliation, Indigenous resilience and education are deeply linked. We have learned from Indigenous communities and successful programs like the Model Schools Project that the markers of success in Indigenous education include strong language, cultural and values content; education that focuses on the whole person; and the full participation of communities and Elders in educational leadership. Sounds like independent Christian schools, doesn’t it?

To honour the TRC’s call to reconciliation, we at the Centre have been advocating for follow-through on TRC Calls to Action 7-10, which call for reform of K-12 education for Indigenous peoples, by Indigenous peoples. The Trudeau government has expressed strong support for reconciliation in many ways: committing to the implementation of all TRC Calls to Action; mandating all Cabinet Ministers to prioritize building relationships with Indigenous peoples on a Nation to Nation basis; and making historic and much-needed financial commitments to Indigenous communities in all three of its budgets. These have been important steps.

However, in order for anything to truly change, decision-makers must be held accountable. If they don’t hear about the importance of keeping their promises on Indigenous education, it can very easily slip off their priority lists. We need to keep reminding them of their commitments to implement the TRC’s Calls to Action and turn away from the evils of residential schools.

Called to Action

The Beyond 94 website provides a snapshot of progress towards implementing those Calls to Action. On the reform of K-12 education, the website shows that the news is mixed: there has been moderate progress on 7 & 8 (equity in educational funding and graduation rates) due to a $2.6 billion commitment in Budget 2016. So far there has been minimal action on 9 (annual reporting on 7 & 8) and 10 (education legislation). However, in our conversations with Indigenous leaders, we have learned that the fulfillment of Calls to Action 9 & 10 will depend on the implementation of 7 & 8.

Call to Action 7 calls for the elimination of educational gaps between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians. This “gap” is typically measured by contrasting grade 12 graduation rates between provincial systems and on-reserve First Nation schools. Auditor Generals have tracked this data for many years and have consistently noted troubling gaps. In 2016 there was a 33 percent gap between those holding a grade 12 diploma in the general population of Canada and Indigenous people on reserve. In 2001 this gap was 30 percent. The Auditor General reported that the department of Indigenous Services has not collected data to address these gaps – a deeply disappointing finding. This persistent gap in graduation rates is linked to a long-term under-funding of Indigenous education on reserve.

Indigenous education systems have struggled with under-funding for decades. The extent of this underfunding is complex to track because of differences in funding models among provincial education systems. First Nations Children on reserve have received between 30 percent and 50 percent less funding than kids in provincial systems at least since 1996. This is why the Trudeau government’s announcement of $2.6 billion in funding for Indigenous education in budget 2016 was so significant. There have been a number of restrictions on the full release of these funds, but full implementation of these commitments is a good start on fulfilling TRC Call to Action 8.

Christian Reformed support for education has mostly been limited to our Christian Reformed communities. What if we valued culturally-appropriate and adequately-funded education, not just for our own communities, but for Indigenous communities too?

It takes a village to raise a child. We know, thanks to the TRC, how wrong we were to remove Indigenous kids from their communities. Let’s use the lessons we’ve learned about independent Christian schools to make a wrong into a right.


  • Mike is Director of the Christian Reformed Church’s Centre for Public Dialogue and a PhD student with NAIITS, an Indigenous Learning Community. He lives in Ottawa, Ont.

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