Shawn Atleo has been walking a tightrope over the past few months.
In January, he faced a near revolt from other First Nations chiefs who had travelled to Ottawa to demand a summit with the prime minister. Idle No More protests were escalating; Ontario band chief Theresa Spence was still subsisting on a liquid diet. There was a lot of emotion, distrust and internal wrangling about what the key issues were for native populations.
But Atleo, the national chief, has stood strong on one front, and continues to promote it every chance he gets.
His goal is improving education.
In October, Atleo wrote a piece for The Globe and Mail which highlighted how crucial education is to the welfare of First Nations communities. It is a lack of education, in part, that kept natives down, and it is education that will raise them up.
“Education is a key determinant of social and economic health and is directly linked to goals of building strong governing capacity and sustainable economies,” Atleo wrote. “It has been an instrument of oppression against First Nations, with attempts to remove our identities, fracture our families and eliminate our languages, traditions, thinking and being. These attempts to oppress our cultures, languages and rights must end, and it starts with education.”
It’s not hard to see what native leaders are up against. A story this week in Canada’s other national newspaper, for example, illustrates a vicious circle of failure in many northern schools.
The National Post’s Joe O’Connor interviewed Fred Schell, a high-school dropout who worked in construction most of his life and is now the Nunavut representative for South Baffin Island.
Talking to his own constituents, Schell is alarmed by the now-entrenched policy of pushing students through the school system without any standard of learning.
“(One) parent I spoke to wanted their child held back a grade, because the child wasn’t ready to move on,” Schell told the Post. “But there was no way the school would hold him back.
“The system is failing these kids.”
Children who are pushed through the system aren’t ready for standardized testing in the later grades.
“The kids can’t pass the tests because they don’t have the skills, and so they get frustrated and eventually they stop going to school and then they drop out,” says Schell.
This is not exclusive to native schools; few elementary students in Canada are ever held back for any reason. But it’s chronic in schools like those Schell talks about. And one of the results is clearly reflected in a report tabled in the House of Commons this week on incarceration rates in Canada.
It found fully one-quarter of the prison population in this country is aboriginal, and that these inmates remain in jail longer. The report chastised the federal government for ignoring the problem, and for not focusing more on how to keep them out of jail in the first place.
In light of these sad facts, Atleo has proven himself a true visionary. For him, nothing will be solved until the root of these woes is properly addressed.
“When our young people do complete high school, they’re twice as likely to get a job. When they graduate from university, their earnings triple.” he wrote. “More important, they’re returning home and rebuilding their nations, expanding economic opportunity and creating safe and secure places for their families to thrive.”