Manitoba’s education overhaul plan a step forward for Indigenous students, advocates say

Advocates for Indigenous students say Manitoba’s latest education reform action plan is a good first step toward improving their outcomes in school, but it must be followed up with continuing community engagement and critical reflection.

On Wednesday, the government announced its action plan in response to recommendations from the province’s kindergarten to Grade 12 education commission, including addressing disparities in education for rural and northern students, and taking action to improve outcomes for Indigenous and newcomer students.

In Manitoba, 90.8 per cent of non-Indigenous students graduated high school on time in 2020, while only 50.9 per cent of Indigenous students did.

That’s because of a “constellation of issues,” including high poverty and child welfare rates in the province, says Rebecca Chartrand, an education consultant and the vice president of programs and student success at Indspire, a charity that supports First Nations, Métis and Inuit students.

“You have to look at the poverty factor,” said Chartrand, who is Anishinaabe, Inninew and Métis, from Pine Creek First Nation, just north of Dauphin.

 “You have to look at the inter-generational factor of residential schools. And so I think principals are going to have to take a much more holistic approach to ensuring that Indigenous students stay in school.” 

Those issues don’t have easy resolutions, she says, but one thing schools can do is tap into people with lived experiences for resources and support.

“I think working with and in communities is really important. I’d be so happy to hear that we’re actually engaging elders and the knowledge keepers from our communities to support students,” Chartrand said.

Rebecca Chartrand says improving outcomes for Indigenous students requires schools to take a holistic approach. (Warren Kay/CBC)

Michelle Jean-Paul, the divisional principal of diversity, equity, inclusion and anti racism services at the Louis Riel School Division, wonders whether the entire system needs an overhaul.

The government’s role, among other things, is to support Indigenous language development in schools and universities so that we’re at a place where we have qualified teachers who can speak the language.– Prof. Frank Deer

“Are measures of success rooted in Indigenous ways of knowing and being, or are those measures of success being rooted in the ongoing Eurocentric values and dominant values that the school system oftentimes represents?” she said.

“What outcomes are we looking to improve? Are are we looking at more assimilationist outcomes or are we looking at truly embedding Indigenous pedagogies within our our curriculum and within our practices of school system?”

Michelle Jean-Paul wonders whether the entire system needs an overhaul. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Even so, she thinks the action plan is a step forward.

“I am hopefully optimistic that this change in rhetoric is an indication to a change in thinking about the way that we engage community and in the way that we critically reflect on the work that we as a school system are doing.”

Indigenous languages investment needed

A professor of education who specializes in Indigenous education wants to see a greater effort made to ensure there are Indigenous language teachers in the province as a way to approach reconciliation.

“They have been shamed for expressing anything that was affiliated with their respective languages or cultures or identities … along with other colonial interferences with Indigenous peoples, [it] has led to a situation where there are not as many Indigenous, fluent language speakers as we would like,” said Frank Deer with the University of Manitoba, who is Kanien’kehá:ka from Kahnawake, Que.

In order to correct that, Deer says, Indigenous people need to be able to learn the languages that reflect their identities.

“The government’s role, among other things, is to support Indigenous language development in schools and universities so that we’re at a place where we have qualified teachers who can speak the language,” he said.

The province has initiated an elders and knowledge keepers in schools initiative to support students, educators, and families to learn First Nations, Métis and Inuit histories, cultures, traditional values, contemporary lifestyles and traditional knowledge systems across all learning environments.

It’s also created an Indigenous education policy framework called Mamàhtawisiwin: The Wonder We Are Born
, which works to support the holistic achievements of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit learners by assisting Manitoba educators in incorporating Indigenous pedagogy, languages and cultures into their teaching and practices.

The province says a news conference will be held in the coming weeks to provide more details on the Indigenous education policy framework.

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