Keeping Canada's Indian Youth in School

A Winnipeg high school offers native children traditional values and a supportive atmosphere

SITTING in a class of 15 inner-city Indian students here at Children of the Earth High School, 16-year-old Ira Johnson is struggling to reclaim his native roots by learning his ancestral language - Ojibway.

Learning Ojibway, however, is clearly not a piece of cake. Moisture glistens on young Ira's brow as fellow student Julie Parenteau turns to him, holding a flash card with a picture of an old-fashioned water pump with a long curved handle.

Long seconds pass as Ira pauses, perplexed over a word that would have sprung easily to the lips of his grandfather.

``Nibiishka' igan,'' he says finally.

``Good, that's right,'' says Annie Boulanger, the language instructor who is looking over Ira's shoulder. ``You got it.''

This small triumph for Ira is part of the larger battle at Children of the Earth, which is attempting to teach young urban Indians acquainted with city survival about the culture and values of their forefathers. Along the way, the students here must also meet standard high school educational requirements laid down by the province.

Children of the Earth is one among eight native ``survival schools'' that have sprung up across Canada in response to the failure of traditional education to stem high dropout rates for Indian students.

In a country where 18 percent of all students drop out, according to a 1991 Statistics Canada survey reported last year, the rate for native students is far worse. A Winnipeg school official says only about three out of 10 native children will graduate from high school.

Faced with that lack of success, parents, teachers, and school officials in Winnipeg School Division No. 1 began in 1990 to weigh alternatives that included creating a school specifically to meet the needs of urban Indian youth. An Urban Aboriginal Educational Advisory Committee involving urban native leaders was also established by the school board.

The committee began by examining the experience of Canada's native ``survival schools.'' Several had been around since the 1970s. All had remained small, experimental programs outside the mainstream of public education. By 1991, however, the committee was endorsing the notion of building a public school in Winnipeg modeled after the successes of survival schools and avoiding their failures.

Indian parents were brought formally into the process in 1991 with the founding of the Thunder Eagle Society, a volunteer group that was charged with figuring out how to integrate native culture and values. Ultimately, a unique joint-management committee of school board, Thunder Eagle, parents, and teachers was formed.

Children of the Earth opened its doors in September 1991 with a student body of 240, the largest such school in Canada and the only one created within the public-school system. Located in a former high school that had been mostly Indian, school officials and students say there is an air of openness and family unusual for a public school.

``I had pretty well given up on school when I heard about [Children of the Earth],'' says Scott Stephens, a 12th-grade student of Ojibway descent. ``Everyone's on a first name basis. There's no Mrs. or Mr.... It's more like you're friends.''

Like many students interviewed, Scott says blatant racism and name calling at his old school as well as the curriculum pushed him to the verge of dropping out. ``At the other schools, Aboriginal culture is not brought up or discussed, it's only a few pages in a history book,'' he says. ``Other schools concentrate on the mental and physical. Here they include the spiritual and emotional.''

Mary Courchene, principal of the school, explains that the school curriculum is laid over a framework of native spiritual values that derive from the traditional ``medicine wheel'' concept. Much of the work of students involves analyzing Western and native literature on the basis of the wheel's seven qualities which include: truth, humility, courage, and so on.

``What we're seeing now is a renaissance, a rebirth of traditional native values in our school,'' Ms. Courchene says. ``It's an integration of holistic living - leading a well-balanced life that includes the mental, social and emotional, physical, spiritual all intertwined in one.''

By being with other native students and with teachers who care about them, the hard veneer many children have built up begins to disintegrate and learning begins. Students who before sat silently in the back of a traditional class, find themselves contributing for the first time - and liking it, both teachers and students say.

``The first difference for them is they're comfortable here, there's no racism,'' Ms. Decter says. ``The students are a lot more open in their writing. It's very healing for them.''

It is too early to say whether Children of the Earth is achieving its bottom line: a higher rate of native graduates capable of surviving well in a traditional reservation lifestyle or in multicultural Canada.

This spring Children of the Earth saw 20 students graduate out of the 32 that began the year. That's still a high dropout rate, Courchene admits. Still, she says: ``We've seen in two years more natives graduate than a regular high school with the same number of native kids would graduate in five years....''

Joletta Brown, an education consultant to the Winnipeg School Division who completed a review of the school this spring, agrees with Courchene. She says the school is having some organizational problems with its unique joint management arrangement. It is also having attendance problems.

Yet, she adds, those difficulties pale before the steady headway the school is achieving in setting a pattern for how to successfully school native children.

Manitoba's native population is the fastest growing demographic sector in the province. In Winnipeg, a city of 617,000, the Indian population grew from 16,100 in 1981 to 44,970 in 1991. Current estimates of the urban native population run between 45,000 and 60,000.

Such numbers indicate a shift toward a native population that is mostly young and - because of the dropout rate - largely uneducated. That is potentially bad news for native leaders and federal officials holding Manitoba up as the future model of native self-government in Canada.

``The Aboriginal community clearly needs more graduates to support their self- government initiatives,'' Brown says. ``But the larger community also has an interest in seeing more Aboriginal students ... achieve higher levels of education. By the year 2000, one in four entrants into the Manitoba labor market will be Aboriginal.''

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