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Closing the Gap: Improving Educational Attainment and Success for Indigenous Peoples

Tansi Nîtôtemtik,

When it comes to the level of attainment and success in the education system, there is a big gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. Indigenous peoples continue “to have significantly lower levels of education than the general populations” in Canada and around the world.[1]

The experiences that Indigenous peoples have had with the education system in Canada have been traumatic.[2] Effects of colonialism, such as the socioeconomic marginalization of Indigenous peoples and inadequate funding for education, continue to contribute to the lower levels of success for Indigenous peoples within the education system.[3]

It's important to recognize the existence of the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people’s successes and levels of attainment in education. It is equally important to realize that the gap is not caused by Indigenous people’s individual traits, abilities, or choices, but by the larger impacts of colonialism, and continuing inequities in Canada.

With these realizations in mind, there are steps that can be taken to help improve education attainment levels and success for Indigenous students. One way to start is to frame success in a holistic way, that takes into account “well-being, participation, engagement, and achievement” of students, rather than only considering grades or the level of education achieved.[4]

It’s important to build and maintain relationships of trust and respect between school staff and Indigenous families, especially because of Canada’s history of colonization and the residential school system. Engaging with parents and families assists in building relationships, which has proven successful for one elementary school in New Brunswick.

At this school, staff have built connections with Indigenous families, which helps to make the children’s transition into the educational system more comfortable. Staff members go out to the First Nation community to meet the parents before their children start school, and get to know the children and their unique interests and needs. Before the school year starts, the Indigenous families also visit the school, and once the school year begins, there is a “welcome ceremony for children and their families.”[5] In this school, the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students’ success has nearly been closed.[6]

Another useful approach is to use active rather than passive processes. This helps Indigenous students to “build critical thinking skills and relate what they’ve learned to the contexts of their everyday lives.”[7] When children see that what they’re learning at school is useful for their everyday lives, they are less likely to skip school. This is especially important, as attendance plays a big part in educational success.[8] It’s also important to fully integrate “Indigenous knowledges, perspectives and pedagogies into educational curricula,” and to validate “Indigenous knowledge as a full and equal partner,” not as something extra or as an “‘other’ way of knowing.”[9]

Incorporating Indigenous principles and perspectives into Indigenous education creates wide reaching benefits, and improves Indigenous students’ success levels and educational attainment.[10] This involves creating a holistic learning environment, focusing on relationships, teaching things that can be used in students’ real lives, connecting to their experiences, and drawing from Indigenous languages, cultures, and ways of knowing.[11]

As stated earlier, and discussed more fully in Monday’s post, funding is a huge part of the problem when it comes to the lower level of success and educational attainment of Indigenous peoples. However, any step in the right direction is a step that should be taken, no matter how small.

If any of the larger steps mentioned here seem implausible for some schools, providing books and resources developed by Indigenous peoples is one easy step that many schools can take.[12] Regardless of which other steps are taken, I believe that all schools can work to create more positive and welcoming environments for Indigenous students and families, utilize Indigenous knowledge, and foster relationships of respect and inclusion, which will in turn help to improve levels of attendance, success, and educational attainment.

Until next time,

Team Reconcili-ACTION YEG

[1]National Collaborating Centre for Aboriginal Health, “Education as a Social Determinant of First Nations, Inuit and Métis Health” (2017) at 1, online (pdf): <>. [2] Ibid. [3] Supra note 1 at 2. [4]OECD, “Supporting Success for Indigenous Students” (2017) at 2, online (pdf): <>. [5] Ibid at 4. [6] Supra note 4 at 3. [7] Supra note 1 at 7. [8] Education Connections, “Strengthening Attendance and Retention of Indigenous Youth in Elementary and Secondary Schools in Canada and Beyond” (Fredericton, NB: Education Connections, 2017) at 25, online (pdf): <>. [9] Supra note 1 at 7. [10] Supra note 1 at 9. [11] Ibid. [12] Supra note 4 at 5.

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