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Educational Apartheid: Systemic Barriers to Learning for Indigenous Students

Tansi Nîtôtemtik,

As students ourselves, the ReconciliACTION team is acutely aware of the powerful effects of education. Historically it has been wielded as both a weapon against Indigenous people by the state and as a tool of empowerment for the reclamation of spaces by Indigenous students. As a system, it has served to oppress and systemically eliminate Indigenous people and also to reclaim spaces and energize the next generation of young leaders.

It is a complex history and relationship and one that Truth and Reconciliation Commission put to task with Call to Action #7, which calls upon the federal government "to develop with Aboriginal groups a joint strategy to eliminate employment gaps between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians.”[1]

The truth is that despite decades of data and studies on the educational gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, we continue to fail in addressing the systemic barriers.

The Canadian government found that only 44% of Indigenous youth aged 18-24 have completed high school, which is half of the 88% graduation rate for other Canadians.[2]

Our previous blog posts have outlined the systemic inequalities caused by colonialism. 1 in 4 children in First Nations communities live in poverty.[3] Suicide rates among First Nations youth are 5 to 7 times higher than non-Aboriginal people in Canada.[4] Food security is an issue for almost 50% of reserve residents.[5] It is not difficult to see how the effects of colonialism and intergenerational injustices lead to disparities in the educational outcomes of Indigenous students.

And yet, the focus remains on the intergenerational trauma of Indigenous peoples. A focus that may be misplaced when looking at the ongoing injustices perpetrated by provincial and federal governments to this day.

A report commissioned by the Assembly of First Nations found that approximately 74% of Indigenous schools on-reserve currently require major repairs. These repairs range from additional space to plumbing and sewage issues, electrical, roofing, building code issues, and structural and foundation problems.[6] In a shocking and disturbing 72% of Indigenous schools, the health and safety of students is a concern.[7] 32% of Indigenous schools still have issues with access to clean drinking water.[8] That means that almost 3/4 of Indigenous schools are either unsafe, unhealthy, or both, and 1/3 of Indigenous schools do not even have access to one of the most basic necessities in life.

These statistics are indicative of issues that go beyond historical wrongs. The disregard of Indigenous children by Canadian society is deafening.

It is not enough to fund Indigenous programming when Indigenous children sit in classrooms without heat. It is not enough to support early learning programs when Indigenous children go to school without enough to eat. We cannot put money into eliminating funding gaps when Indigenous children are more likely to go to jail than to finish high school.

The solution to Indigenous education gaps requires a holistic, systemic approach by the government not yet seen. It requires us not only to recognize the inequalities but to recognize how inherent discrimination and prejudice against Indigenous people has prevented equitable solutions.

Edmonton Public Schools operate 212 schools in the city.[9] Now imagine if 153 of those were deemed unsafe. What uproar there would be for our children. What action would be taken to ensure the safety of our rising generations?

Now ask yourself, dear reader, why do we not feel that outrage for the same statistical reality of our Indigenous kin?

An uncomfortable truth we must each ask ourselves to move forward.

Until next time,


[1] Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, “Calls to Action,” (2015) at 1-2, online (pdf): Government of B.C. <>.

[2] Government of Canada, Indigenous Services Canada, “Quality Education’” (2018) online: Government of Canada, Indigenous Services Canada <>

[3] Assembly of First Nations, “A Portrait of First Nations and Education,” (2013) at 3, online (pdf): Assembly of First Nations Factsheets <>

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Edmonton Public Schools, “Facts and Stats,”(2021) online: Edmonton Public Schools <>


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