First Na­tions ad­dress the dropout prob­lem.

Thirty-nine per cent of chil­dren and young adults on re­serves stay home ev­ery day

Edmonton Journal - - FRONT PAGE - El ise Stolte

They are the ghost chil­dren of the re­serves.

You can’t find them wait­ing for the school bus, can’t pho­to­graph their grin­ning faces on the swings at re­cess. Their names aren’t checked off on the at­ten­dance records, and of­ten their names aren’t listed at all.

The fed­eral gov­ern­ment records the birth and death of ev­ery sta­tus In­dian, keep­ing a tally of school-age chil­dren, four to 21. Of­fi­cials also record ev­ery child go­ing to school on re­serve or in sur­round­ing mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties. But an­a­lyze the best avail­able num­bers for Al­berta re­serves and there are more than 11,000 chil­dren and young adults miss­ing.

That’s a grow­ing, un­e­d­u­cated and marginal­ized pop­u­la­tion, a prob­lem that could come back to haunt us.

“We have dropouts from Grade 9 and Grade 7,” said Billy Joe Labou­can, ed­u­ca­tion di­rec­tor for the Kee Tas Kee Now Tribal Coun­cil north of Slave Lake. “It seems to be an epi­demic.”

These young adults soon have chil­dren and no work, even in re­gions where the oil and gas in­dus­try is boom­ing, said Labou­can.

“The thing about it is, they are ready and will­ing to work. It’s just that they are un­em­ploy­able. The in­dus­try won’t hire them be­cause they don’t have the tick­ets. They don’t have Grade 10; a lot of them don’t have a driver’s li­cence.

“When they try to go back, they get a re­ally huge dis­cour­age­ment be­cause they are told they have to up­grade for four or five years be­fore they can ac­tu­ally get to a first-year ap­pren­tice­ship.”

Af­ter decades of com­plaints, the poor state of First Na­tions schools is fi­nally get­ting some of the at­ten­tion needed at fed­eral, pro­vin­cial and lo­cal lev­els. The three or­ders of gov­ern­ment signed a mem­o­ran­dum of un­der­stand­ing in Al­berta two years ago and have been study­ing the prob­lems to­gether since, ex­pect­ing to make rec­om­men­da­tions pub­lic this fall. But un­til now, this shadow pop­u­la­tion of chil­dren not in school has gone un­counted, even though Abo­rig­i­nal Af­fairs (for­merly In­dian Af­fairs) col­lects and files the ba­sic sta­tis­tics ev­ery year.

In Hobbema, Sam­son Cree Coun. Vern Sad­dle­back pulled the two sets of data for his band and made the cal­cu­la­tions last win­ter, shock­ing his com­mu­nity when he found 40 per cent of chil­dren age five to 18 on his re­serve were not in school.

To fol­low that, the Jour­nal filed fed­eral re­quests for data on ev­ery re­serve in Al­berta, mak­ing these data eas­ily avail­able for the first time on its web­site.

In to­tal this school year, 17,954 chil­dren and young adults age four through 21 liv­ing on re­serves in Al­berta are ei­ther in school or have al­ready earned their high school diploma. Another 11,699, or 39 per cent of chil­dren and young adults, have dropped out or were never reg­is­tered.

Three First Na­tions — Er­mi­ne­skin, Sun­child and Alexan­der — have tru­ancy rates at less than 20 per cent, but most bands face much higher rates.

In 19 of the 44 First Na­tion com­mu­ni­ties, more than 40 per cent of the school-age pop­u­la­tion stays home ev­ery day. Large bands like the Sam­son Cree, Kainai and Lit­tle Red River Cree have more than 1,100 dropouts each.

The rea­sons for such high num­bers are com­pli­cated.

“School is the gate­way to get out of this place, but peo­ple don’t see that,” said Riel Gladue, a Grade 11 stu­dent at Cadotte Lake School.

Nearly all of his friends have dropped out of school, say­ing the school was no good and they could never catch up to stu­dents off re­serve any­way. “There are lots of ex­cuses,” he said. “Some­one needs to go house to house, tell them the good stuff of where school can take you.”

Here in Cadotte Lake, there are large fam­i­lies that don’t send any of their chil­dren to school.

But ties are close in this small com­mu­nity, and fam­ily is what you count on to get you through tough times, said Car­men Lamouche, a Grade 6 teacher’s as­sis­tant.

No one will re­port a rel­a­tive for not send­ing a child to school.

“It would be like you called them out on it. Every­body knows every­thing. You’ll know when some­one makes the call.”

Prin­ci­pal Vic Dikaitis said the legacy of res­i­den­tial schools still has an im­pact. Chil­dren lost their lan­guage and came back hurt­ing. Those mem­o­ries, spread by word of mouth, lead to sus­pi­cion of the schools.

You can’t force sus­pi­cious par­ents to send a child to school or you risk driv­ing them fur­ther away, he said. “You strongly en­cour­age, you try to con­vince.

“Ask­ing why kids don’t go to school is not as im­por­tant as ask­ing how can you get them back to school. These kids are bright. If the kids would come on a reg­u­lar ba­sis, our prob­lems would dis­ap­pear.”

Dikaitis is con­cen­trat­ing on slowly build­ing trust with par­ents, while Kee Tas Kee Now Tribal Coun­cil, which in­cludes the Wood­land Cree of Cadotte Lake, is work­ing on a new re­gional trades or vo­ca­tional high school as part of a new

“Ask­ing why kids don’t go to school is not as im­por­tant as ask­ing how can you get them back to school. These kids are bright. If the kids would come on a reg­u­lar ba­sis, our prob­lems would dis­ap­pear.”

Prin­ci­pal Vic­tor Dikaitis, left

part­ner­ship with the pro­vin­cial North­land School Divi­sion.

Staff plan to in­ter­view dropouts this sum­mer to see what cour­ses could tempt them back, hop­ing politi­cians will come through as promised with fund­ing once the de­tails are worked out.

They’ll take ad­van­tage of the com­ing pro­vin­cial dual-credit sys­tem to let stu­dents earn cred­its to­ward their high school diploma and a jour­ney­man cer­tifi­cate at the same time, said Labou­can, the ed­u­ca­tion di­rec­tor. “It’s not rocket sci­ence; it’s a mat­ter of just get­ting right into it and do­ing it.”

Across the prov­ince, other First Na­tions are also be­gin­ning to talk about the ele­phant in the room, said Mor­ris Manyfin­gers, di­rec­tor of ed­u­ca­tion for the large Kainai First Na­tion in south­ern Al­berta.

Kainai of­fi­cials from its hu­man ser­vices and trans­porta­tion de­part­ments are meet­ing on the is­sue for the first time June 5.

Bus driv­ers, so­cial work­ers and teach­ers need to com­mu­ni­cate, and po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship needs to take this se­ri­ously, he said. “There needs to be pres­sure put on fam­i­lies and homes so those chil­dren are in school.”

On the Sam­son Cree First Na­tion in Hobbema last fall, band coun­cil passed a rule say­ing fam­i­lies must have their chil­dren reg­is­tered for school be­fore get­ting so­cial as­sis­tance.

That helped, said ed­u­ca­tion di­rec­tor Kevin Wells, but many of those chil­dren were so far be­hind, they started act­ing out in class and left school again.

The schools are plan­ning a new, per­ma­nent tran­si­tion class next fall to help those chil­dren catch up. They also started a new out­reach school for ju­nior high and high school dropouts. The school is now op­er­at­ing at ca­pac­ity. With new trail­ers, they’ll dou­ble ca­pac­ity to 140 stu­dents next fall, said Wells.

He and a home li­ai­son worker are also hop­ing to cross-ref­er­ence nom­i­nal rolls and mem­ber­ship lists as best they can to find out who is not at­tend­ing and fol­low up with those fam­i­lies. But it’s a big project, not pos­si­ble dur­ing the school year when their sin­gle li­ai­son worker is busy just keep­ing the chil­dren now in school from drop­ping out.

That would be eas­ier if Ot­tawa would give the band more de­tailed stu­dent lists from all schools, since it col­lects the in­for­ma­tion any­way, Wells said.

Go­ing door to door and check­ing off chil­dren miss­ing from the nom­i­nal roll will be the most ac­cu­rate way to ver­ify how many chil­dren are skip­ping school and why, but even with­out that in­for­ma­tion, there are some things Wells knows for sure, he said.

“Are there a large num­ber of First Na­tions kids who are not at­tend­ing school? Yes. Do the schools want them? Yes. Should the gov­ern­ment be de­mand­ing that they are in school? Yes,” he said.

“Should the gov­ern­ment be pro­vid­ing more money for tu­tor­ing, re­me­dial tran­si­tion, coun­selling? Yes. It’s not all the A+ kids who are drop­ping out.” Down­load the full data set at ed­mon­ton­jour­nal.com/in­sight and con­nect with the re­porter at face­book.com/elise. stolte

pho­tos: Greg Southam , Ed­mon­ton Jour­nal Stu­dents get ready to board a bus af­ter school re­cently in Cadotte Lake, Alta., a re­serve of about 800 peo­ple, 80 km east of Peace River, that’s home to the Wood­land Cree Na­tion.

A skate­board park has been built in front of the Cadotte Lake School.Pho­tos: Greg Southam , Ed­mon­ton Jour­nal

Greg Southam , Ed­mon­ton Jour­nal

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