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Jackson Lecturers Shawn Atleo & Paul Martin agree crisis in Aboriginal education  one of Canada's big social justice issues


By Fred Michah Rynor


Shawn AtleoThe crisis in Aboriginal education is one of the biggest social justice issues facing Canada today stated Shawn A-in-chut Atleo, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations in Canada during the 2013 R. W. B. Jackson Lecture ‘First Nations’ Education in Canada’  held April 18th at Hart House Theatre.

Fellow speaker, the Right Honourable Paul Martin, former prime minister of Canada and Professor Julia O’Sulllivan, OISE Dean (and moderator of the event), were both in agreement with Atleo’s powerful warning.

“The fastest growing population in Canada is young Aboriginals and every Aboriginal child has the right to a quality education,” Atleo emphatically stated to the hundreds gathered in the theatre. “There are currently 30,000 post-secondary Aboriginal students across Canada and we need new schools right now.”

Atleo, who received his MEd in Adult Learning and Global Change from the University of Technology in Australia and an Honorary Doctor of Laws Degree in Education from Nipissing University in Ontario, went on to state that education in the past was recognized by government officials as a powerful – yet dangerous – tool for Aboriginals which is why former governments instituted such devastatingly harmful programs as the infamous residential school system. This initiative took First Nations and Métis children away from their homes and placed them in schools that suppressed their identities, languages and cultures. Many of these children were physically and sexually abused and the harm done to families and communities lingers to this day.

“Schools should not be used as tools of oppression,” he said. “My grandmother told me that in the past we fought for our rights with our fists but now we must fight with education.” 

Martin agreed, stating that he spent ten years as a student at U of T (honours philosophy and history from St. Michael's College; University of Toronto Law School) “and never once during that time did I get to attend such an event as we are having today. As a nation, we are clearly much further ahead when it comes to Aboriginal education but I’m certainly not overjoyed at where we are. Governments talk constantly about budget deficits and how projects and programs can be deferred but when we say we can defer a highway or a building, that deferral doesn’t have the kind of serious impact that deferring educational programs for a six-year-old Aboriginal child does. When you defer education, children rarely, if ever, catch up.”

Both Atleo and Martin spoke glowingly of the efforts Dean O’Sullivan (Chief Advisor to the Martin Aboriginal Education Initiative) continues to make in ensuring Aboriginal education and research remain very real priorities at OISE.

“Good for you Julia for supporting the excellent Aboriginal programs now available on campus,” said Martin.

Canada, Atleo stated, promotes many education programs overseas “but it’s time for this country to deal with the problems in its own backyard. Only then will Canada be a world-wide leader in human rights.”

“Aboriginals are asking for their own traditions to be taught in the classroom and it’s time we understood this,” Martin added. “It is immoral and simply dumb-founded to cut Aboriginal education budgets. The Harper government wants to build a strong economy but how can you do this when you underfund the fastest growing segment of the population?”

Martin is founder of the Martin Aboriginal Initiative – an Ontario-based program in partnership with the Canadian Institute of Chartered Accountants (CICA). This project provides guidance, assistance and advice to Ontario school boards in collaboration with First Nations organizations, post-secondary institutions and the Ministry of Education. Together, these partners support Aboriginal students by liaising with post-secondary commerce, business and accounting programs to increase Aboriginal participation in businesses and corporations.

“Many of our languages are on the brink of extinction which is why our traditions and culture must be added to the classroom now,” argued Atleo, “and it must be mandatory to have the history of the residential school system and the history of our treaties added to the curriculum.”

The R. W. B. Jackson Lecture Series was created to honour of Robert William Briarly Jackson, founding director of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (1965 – 1975). This annual presentation brings renowned experts from across Canada and around the world to discuss current educational/social issues and is funded by educational associations, charities, friends and colleagues.

View the Jackson Lecture picture gallery here