A $1-million task force created by the federal government in October 2020 has released its findings and 37 calls to action to strengthen the post-secondary system in the North.
The task force found the northern K-12 system is failing to prepare students for post-secondary education, there is under-representation of Indigenous knowledge and leaders at both K-12 and post-secondary level, and systemic barriers to access remain.
The calls to action address many facets of the issue, from student housing to land-based programming, and inclusion of Elders in post-secondary institutions to internet access.
The report collected data from a public survey, regional engagement sessions, guest experts, written input from northern post-secondary institutions, and a review of northern government reports, independent audits, and academic sources.
“It’s time for us all to put egos aside, jurisdictions aside, and come together,” said Jodie Lane, director of education in Nunatsiavut and a task force member, during a news conference announcing the report.
“There are some major changes that have to be made here in the way we look at education, how we run education in our country.”
The report begins by acknowledging the “significant, painful, and long-lasting damages that many Indigenous peoples have experienced since the advent of externally imposed formal education systems.”
It also describes the transition toward and continued reliance on Western standards and expectations around education, and recognizes the erasure of Indigenous education and knowledge.
“This transmission of skills and knowledge did not take place in schools but, rather, on the lands and waters on which they called home. Over time, through colonization and ongoing colonial legacies, these highly successful learning environments – that were thousands of years old, and were child-centred and rich with culture and freedom – were now reduced to schoolhouses and being inside, steeped with rigid rules, conformity and isolation,” the report states.
The calls to action highlight an overarching need to return leadership of education, with equitable funding and supports, to northerners.
During Thursday’s news conference, Ashlee Cunsolo – a task force member and founding dean of the School of Arctic and Subarctic Studies at the Labrador Institute of Memorial University – said northern post-secondary institutions should be a guide for the rest of the country.
“You hear a lot of talk about Indigenizing the curriculum but it’s also administrative structures, it’s also governance structures. It’s also understanding that multiple ways of knowing have places within university and college structures, and that we need to make space for that,” Cunsolo said.
“You can see this working really well in northern post-secondary institutions. At Dechinta, at Aurora College… they’re creating post-secondary education that recognizes Indigenous leadership and sovereignty over not just education but research, governance structures, policies, procedures, and administrative structures.
“So I think that actually, the rest of the country and southern universities have a lot to learn from [them] around how to create these spaces.”
However, the report revealed what amount to Catch-22 situations for Indigenous students and those attempting to improve the education system in the North.
The report identified a need for Indigenous teachers and leaders so that K-12 education can succeed but, for Indigenous educators to be recognized by the education system as teachers, they need to successfully complete K-12 and post-secondary education.
Asked how she recommended increasing Indigenous ownership of education, Lane responded, “We have to start by getting Indigenous people into the system itself, into the post-secondary system.”
The report recommended local, Indigenous-led trade apprenticeships as an alternative to post-secondary education, but also acknowledged that for Indigenous experts to be qualified to offer apprenticeships, they need certificates that are only available at (often distant) post-secondary institutions.
The report found that for Indigenous students to qualify for post-secondary education, they often require a “bridge” program in which they take additional courses. Most post-secondary scholarships count these bridge years as full years, meaning students lose funding halfway through their degrees.
“In many parts of the North, bridging and/or upgrading is counted against the funding years allocated to students,” the report states. “If students require two years to upgrade, that two years is deducted from their funding years for further post-secondary opportunities.”
The report called for an increase in Indigenous programming in the curriculum, but Indigenous knowledge and expertise is currently not recognized by the majority of post-secondary institutions.
While absenteeism is often mentioned as a problem that needs to be solved in the NWT’s current education system, many educators noted students are missing school to participate in culturally relevant activities.
“We continue to lose students around the same time of year. It’s usually during hunting season, or there could be cultural activities going on in the communities toward polar nights and polar days. These influences, I don’t think they’re accounted for because we teach the Alberta curriculum,” an unnamed teacher is quoted as saying in the report. The report did not clarify whether the upcoming switch to the BC curriculum will address this issue.
The recommendations are sweeping, but members say they are hopeful about the future of post-secondary education in theNorth and believe there are “incredibly exciting” times ahead.
While some have been frustrated with the pace at which the government is implementing calls to action around Indigenous sovereignty and access to education from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, task force members say the time for stalling is over.
“There’s so much division, so much time wasted,” said Lane. “So many wonderful people’s energies and ideas have been wasted being caught up in bureaucracy around whose jurisdiction and whose responsibility is it.
“It’s time to put that aside now and say, ‘OK, these are the changes we have to make. How can we do it?’”