School choice should apply to every First Nations family in Canada

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Appeared in the Winnipeg Sun, January 15, 2016

Some indigenous activists in Winnipeg are upset over plans to establish a Catholic middle school in Winnipeg’s indigenous-dominated North End. 

Given the Catholic character of the school, they compared it to Canada’s past residential schools system, which included church-run institutions. 

First Nations families do not have to apologize for their concern about education systems designed for their children. Canada’s regrettable past experimentation with residential schools was detrimental to Indigenous families and the legacy is still felt today. 

However, this issue demands perspective. The school would be nothing like residential schools because students would attend by choice and they would not live in the schools. 

Although families did experience abuse in Catholic-run institutions, it would not be fair to deny indigenous students access to a Catholic education because of someone’s view of that legacy. Many indigenous families embrace the Catholic faith and would appreciate their children learning in that kind of environment. That is their choice. Indigenous activists should not be allowed to impose their vision of indigenous education on all indigenous families. 

In order to move forward we should provide indigenous families what they were denied during the residential school era: respect and choice. 

Indigenous families should have the widest breadth of choice in education available. Some people maintain that indigenous children need as much indigenous language, culture, and spirituality as possible. So for them, a culture-centred approach to education is essential. However, not all indigenous families would agree. Many families might opt for an education short on culture but tall on the Three-Rs with a healthy dose of discipline. Perhaps they believe indigenous culture and spirituality should be left for home and community and not emphasized at school. Again, that would be their choice.

One idea recently studied by the Fraser Institute that could help urban Indigenous students is charter schools. Charter schools are non-profit public schools that operate autonomously from public school boards. Governed by their own boards and accountable to the ministry of education for meeting their charters, they are free to adopt non-traditional pedagogy or curriculum.

In Canada, only Alberta allows charter schools. Some charter schools take in indigenous students and one in that province, Mother Earth’s Children’s Charter School in Stony Plain, Alberta, operates as Canada’s only indigenous charter school. It draws students from on and off reserve, but not without some conflict from nearby reserves.  

A recent Fraser Institute study reviewed the large body of research on charter schools in the United States and found them particularly effective at educating students disadvantaged by poverty, minority status, poor baseline academic performance, and low parental education. 

Who does that sound like? If the track record from the U.S. holds true for Canada, charter schools could work for indigenous students. Native American communities have been experimenting with indigenous charter schools for years. Hawaii has indigenous charter schools that produce culture and good academic results.

Winnipeg’s North End—and all urban areas with indigenous communities—deserve maximum educational choice, including options to attend Catholic institutions, inner-city schools, or autonomous public schools, such as charter schools. The days of dictating where indigenous families ought to educate their children are over. Successful models that embody respect and choice must characterize the way forward.

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