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Education success in the NWT can only come with Indigenous control

Aurora College's Developmental Studies is largely Adult Basic Education while Health and Human Services is a 10-month program that provides students with the academic and personal preparation to enter into certificate or diploma programs. Chart from Aurora College

NNSL Media Pu8blisher Bruce Valpy
NNSL Media Publisher Bruce Valpy

My goal with the two previous columns I have written about the proposed polytechnic  transformation for Aurora college is to lay out the facts facing Team Polytechnic in the Department of Education.

The numbers show Dene, Metis, Inuvialuit and Inuit students in the NWT are not getting the education they need to succeed in academic programs and go on to college and university. This is documented in low graduation rates (35 percent). We can see the problem clearly in Grade 10, where there are more students than Grade 9 because Grade 10 is where social passing stops. 

We see it in the Aurora College enrolment numbers as there's a huge number of students in upgrading rather than higher education courses or trades.

Aurora College's Developmental Studies is largely Adult Basic Education while Continuing Education offers software training, basic accounting practices and other courses for professional development. Table from Aurora College Foundational Review

There might be a temptation to say the difference between graduation rates for these students must be higher in Yellowknife, where there are state-of-the-art schools. In fact, the graduation rates for Indigenous students do go up to 45 percent in the capital city but still fall far short of the non-Indigenous students at 70 percent.  

So, it seems, there are two school systems: one for Dene, Metis, Inuvialuit and Inuit students and one for everyone else. That was noted in Hotıì ts'eeda’s (a research support unit hosted by the Tłı̨chǫ Government, and governed primarily by Northwest Territories Indigenous Governments) in its response to the Aurora College foundational review.

The undeniable difference between the two school systems – one in Yellowknife and another in the communities – is scholastic results. There is another difference though: an elected school board, like the ones in Yellowknife. There is no elected autonomous school board directing Dene, Metis, Inuvialuit and Inuit education in the NWT. There was an honest attempt to address this in the 1980s when divisional boards were formed but no matter what, the minister of Education in Yellowknife has all the authority under the Education Act. 

Contrast the poor outcomes of the NWT education system for the past 40 years with the  achievements of the Mi’kmaq people in Nova Scotia. In 1998, they took control of their schools based upon the creation of a federal Mi’kmaq Education Act.

Before then, only 30 per cent of Mi’kmaq students were graduating from secondary school compared to 94 per cent now. They also boast a 91 per cent average attendance rate at their schools. In 2019, they signed a new, 10-year education agreement worth $600 million with the federal government.

These are results we in the North can only dream about. But Indigenous control of funding, Indigenous control of culture-based curriculum and Indigenous responsibility for student success has not been tried in the North.

Earlier this month, former MP Dennis Bevington praised Premier Caroline Cochrane and her government for opening the door to recognizing Indigenous governments as equals when it comes to land and resource management.

“The GNWT is not the higher government. We are equal at the table,” said Cochrane. “That is the message that we want to carry forward as we continue this work.” 

This type of shared responsibility must be extended to education of Northern Indigenous children who indisputably are an Indigenous-owned resource. But neither the Department of Education staff nor Team Polytechnic can act on their own. 

The changes needed to produce Dene, Metis, Inuvialuit and Inuit students for the higher education and trades training envisioned for the polytechnic university can only be accomplished by firm political leadership and determined direction. The Indigenous MLAs speaking as one, the cabinet listening, the Premier acting, all must happen first.

Otherwise, despite all the good that Aurora College does, we will add a fifth decade of failure in educating community children, leaving all the jobs on the table for southerners cycling through, taking their expertise and wealth with them back south.