VICTORIA – British Columbia has fallen well short of its 10-year commitment to closing the education gap between aboriginal and non-aboriginal public school students, reveals a report from the province’s auditor general.
In the report released on Thursday, Carol Bellringer found that while high-school completion rates for First Nations students rose from 49 to 62 per cent over the last decade, they remained more than 20 percentage points below the 2015 target level of 85 per cent.
Graduation rates for non-aboriginal students increased from 82 to 87 per cent during the same period.
“There is a wide and historically persistent gap in graduation rates between aboriginal and non-aboriginal students in Canada,” said Bellringer.
“While this is an improvement, more can be done because the gap has not closed.”
The province pledged in 2005 to boost aboriginal student graduation rates to the 85-per-cent level anticipated for their non-aboriginal counterparts by 2015.
In 10 of B.C.’s 60 school districts fewer than half of aboriginal students graduated in 2014, with especially dismal results among students who live on reserve and those in provincial care, revealed the report.
It sets out 11 recommendations, including encouraging the ministry to collaborate with school boards, superintendents and aboriginal communities to create a shared, system-wide strategy.
This would allow the government to better monitor what works and what doesn’t, and would also empower the ministry to intervene when districts consistently show poor results, said the auditor.
Bellringer also advocated for improving teacher training to create safe, non-racist learning environments and introducing a B.C.-wide curriculum that addresses the past and present effects of colonization on aboriginal people.
“In the education system, racism can come from low expectations of certain students based on preconceptions and biases,” she said.
“Just as much as educators need to expect that all aboriginal students will graduate, every child should feel safe at school.”
Bellringer emphasized that the reason for the aboriginal education gap remains poorly understood and she encouraged the Education Ministry to address this dearth by processing data it already has at its disposal.
“The ministry has a wealth of valuable information; however, it does not use it to its full potential,” she said. “Better analysis would be revealing.”
Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, blamed Premier Christy Clark’s government for “a culture of indifference” when it comes to aboriginal education.
“Clearly if an issue is not directly or indirectly related to a future LNG development it’s not a priority concern for the Clark government,” he said, referring to Clark’s promises of a multibillion-dollar LNG industry in the province.
“We’re becoming aware that the investments in aboriginal education are simply not there.”
The Education Ministry announced it had accepted all 11 of the report’s recommendations.
“We did not reach the targets we were hoping to but we have seen great success,” said Education Minister Mike Bernier. “We recognize and identify that these are areas that we can improve on in the province of B.C.”
He highlighted the government’s move to introduce First Nations elements into the province’s education curriculum, including components on Canada’s troubled history of residential schools.
NDP education critic Rob Fleming was quick to blame the government’s shortcomings on funding cuts to the system and ongoing labour battles with teachers.
“Resources to the public education system at large have been extremely challenged under this government,” said Fleming. “They’ve created an atmosphere that’s disruptive and I think that has impacted the learning experience for kids.”
— With files from Dirk Meissner