On May 17, 1954, in Brown v. Board of Education, the United States Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the traditional judicial doctrine of "separate but equal" facilities for different races was unconstitutional, and that black students must be allowed to attend the same public schools as white students. The recognition that "separate but equal" is a rhetorical and practical oxymoron was also the cornerstone of the 30-year struggle by Nelson Mandela and his African National Congress to destroy South Africa's racist apartheid system.
But legalized racial segregation is alive, if not well, in the city of Winnipeg in the form of two north-end aboriginal schools, Niji Mahkwa Primary School and Children of the Earth High School. Established and administered not by the native community but by the bureaucratic public-school monopoly, these two schools are failing to meet the educational and cultural needs of their aboriginal students.
This was revealed last spring in standardized provincial examinations in mathematics, the most culture-free of subjects. While the Grade 3 province-wide average was 60.7 per cent, Niji Mahkwa students averaged 26.8. The Grade 12 province-wide average was 65.9 per cent; the Children of the Earth students averaged 34.6. Most isolated First Nations reserve schools achieved much higher results.
The academic failure of so many urban native students has usually been explained away by invoking such external factors as urban poverty, cultural differences, systemic racism, single parenthood, and student behavioural problems. These factors have always been taken as self evident. Any call to systematically test them -- or even question their relevance -- is taken as prima facie evidence of systemic racism. So is the observation that other immigrant ethnic/racial groups facing many of these same problems have managed to overcome them, generally within a single generation. Rarely, if ever, are factors intrinsic to the educational system given the consideration the educational literature says they deserve -- factors such as teacher training, curriculum content, pedagogical methods, classroom and school management, teacher-union hegemony, and government bureaucracy.
Human beings are very intelligent and adaptable creatures: Given the right opportunities and motivation, all normal children, regardless of racial or ethnic background, can easily master several languages. Dozens of Canada's ethnic groups have shown this for generations by setting up and managing their own independent after-school programs. What these successful efforts reveal is that the state should get out of the way and let ethnic groups manage their own ethnicity on their own terms using their own resources.
Co-opted and indoctrinated by the huge self-serving, white-managed, guilt-based "Indian industry," too many native people have come to believe that their very survival, cultural or otherwise, lies in the hands of benevolent statist policies and programs. School boards, among the most wasteful if not harmful of state institutions, have repeatedly shown themselves to be antithetical to fostering educational excellence. How can an institution that has permitted, if not encouraged, a steady 40-year decline in basic educational standards -- in reading, writing, history, mathematics and science -- now be entrusted with such a sensitive and complex phenomenon as cultural survival?
It's not surprising that not only have these aboriginal schools failed their students academically, they have also failed to teach them much about their heritage, as the following comments from a 1994 external review of Children of the Earth High School suggest:
"I need math. I didn't learn math last year. . . . Take drumming, dancing but don't learn anything about culture. . . . Since coming here I haven't been doing anything other than phys ed."
"Some of the programs are not well organized. For example, Indigenous Issues, not much to do. Sat and watched movies. There were no assignments. Expected a lot more."
"In language class we just sit around. We're not given time to learn anything. I haven't really learned Cree."
"It gets boring. They keep telling you the same thing over and over in the classes. Only Language Arts and Math really interest students. There isn't enough challenge. They should get more spirit into it."
Retaining or re-learning traditional languages and preserving ancestral culture are understandable goals that individual native people have a right to pursue if they wish to do so. But what good is it to become fluent in Cree -- even if such fluency were actually being achieved -- and be left illiterate in English? What good is it to have high ethnic self esteem -- to be proud to be an Indian -- but be consigned to a life of material and intellectual poverty?
Native students have the same innate potential as white students. When will enough aboriginal people recognize that, freely chosen or not, apartheid is still apartheid, and force the white educational establishment to put aside its patronizing agenda and allow their children to fulfill this potential?