Proceedings of the Standing Senate Committee on
Issue 10 - Evidence (morning session)
EDMONTON, Friday, March 21, 2003
The Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples met this day at 9:10 a.m. to study issues affecting urban Aboriginal youth in Canada and, in particular, to examine access; provision and delivery of services; policy and jurisdictional issues; employment and education; access to economic opportunities; youth participation and empowerment; and other related matters.
Senator Thelma J. Chalifoux (Chairman) in the Chair.
The Chairman: I would like to welcome each and every one of you here. This is an important study for an action plan for change on urban Aboriginal issues, focusing on youth. This committee has been charged with the responsibility of looking at not only the issues, but also the successes of Aboriginal agencies and institutions and how you are coping and dealing with the many challenges that we face within the urban communities.
We have been authorized to examine access, provision and delivery of services, policy and jurisdictional issues, employment and education, access to economic opportunities, youth participation and empowerment, and other related matters. You can see that we are looking at a broad range of challenges within an action plan for change. We are looking to organizations such as yours to come up with possible recommendations on solutions and what you are doing to address these issues.
I would like to introduce our senators. We have Senator Pat Carney. She is a Conservative from British Columbia. We also have with us Senator Landon Pearson from Ontario; Senator Nick Sibbeston, from the Northwest Territories; and myself. It is nice to be in the Senate because we are not elected, so we are not as partisan. We are able to look at issues and come together as a good, strong committee to make these reports and recommendations, and to lobby the government departments to address the issues that we describe in the reports.
Ms. Eva Stang, Aboriginal Liaison Coordinator, Northern Alberta Institute of Technology: Thank you for inviting me here today. I am the Aboriginal liaison coordinator at NAIT and I am located on the main campus, which is right across from the old municipal airport. I have been with NAIT for approximately four years and provide services specifically to our Aboriginal students. That encompasses First Nations, Metis and Inuit students. I primarily provide academic support, employment transition upon completion of their programs and personal support.
At times, when our students are preparing to write exams, it is those small support services that really make it or break it for some of them. For example, we have had single mothers whose children have become sick and could not go to daycare, and so on occasion, we have been babysitters as well. I provide support services to our students applying for scholarships and bursaries, and when I do, I highly recommend to a lot of our students to become involved with the community. I believe that is how we strengthen our community, by getting our students involved. In turn, I will make recommendations and provide letters of support for those applications.
We have a very active Aboriginal student club that has been in place for the last four years. Our students provide not only social support services to each other, but also peer support. We are trying to encourage success at NAIT in our various programs. We do that by getting our second-year students to support our first-year students, so a lot of peer tutoring is occurring right on campus.
We provide other types of workshops and seminars as well. We have study skills, time management. Sometimes it is budgeting; sometimes it is something new for our students as well. We also do presentations at high schools and junior high schools. Although I am the liaison coordinator on campus, I do a lot of recruitment within the Aboriginal First Nations and Metis communities, and I like to bring my students along.
The students have a larger impact in presenting and discussing what it is like to be a student at NAIT. They talk to the students about that transition. That is the main contact for a lot of the students at the junior high and high school level. It also serves to bring role models to our communities. When we take our students who are actually in petroleum engineering, lab and X-ray or culinary arts, they have the largest impact in the communities. Therefore we strongly recommend that our students come with us when we do presentations.
We send out an Aboriginal student newsletter in which we announce any kind of community events, for example, powwows or maybe a Metis function. We also strongly encourage our students to become participants or volunteers in numerous activities within the community. For example, a lot of our students attended an Aboriginal business mixer last night. We encourage our students to do some networking, because they are only with us for two to three years. Our centre is a safe place to be, but we also have to give them strength and provide some support so that when they leave our institution, they can fit into that community, as well as make contacts for when they are looking for employment.
We also have a cultural day every year that is really important to us. We used to call it ``cultural awareness,'' but we have now had our fourth annual cultural day at NAIT, and so it is not ``awareness'' any more. People are very aware that we are there. We highlight First Nations and Metis cultures, and if we have enough Inuit students, we ask them to participant as well, either by performing or providing some traditional food.
We also have the Senator Chalifoux Award. When we first started our cultural day, we wanted to ensure that people in the community who provide support services to our students in completing their academic programs would receive appreciation from the student club, not necessarily from NAIT. Every year we give the award to an individual, corporation or organization that has supported Aboriginal education. The senator was kind enough to allow us to present this award in her name. We wanted to recognize, senator, the contributions that you have made to the Aboriginal community and give something back to them on your behalf.
For example, we gave the award to TransCanada, which has provided scholarships and awards to Aboriginal students at NAIT for the past eight years. We also this year gave recognition to the Saddle Lake First Nation Education Department. They have sent the most students to NAIT of all the First Nations in the province of Alberta. That gives you an example of how we take pride in our culture, as well as making other student bodies on campus aware that there is a high population of Aboriginal students at NAIT. Of the 7,000 students at NAIT, we have over 300 Aboriginal students in various programs.
Ms. Pam Sparklingeyes, Cultural Coordinator, Aboriginal Learning Centre, Edmonton Catholic Schools: I work at the Aboriginal Learning Centre, which is part of Edmonton Catholic Schools. Ben Calf Robe School is also part of Edmonton Catholic Schools. Our organization was recently developed to support Aboriginal students in Edmonton Catholic schools and their families. We have about 1,200 students who identified themselves as being Aboriginal enrolled in our schools. We are providing support to those students who choose to go to inclusive settings or to Ben Calf Robe.
I run a youth program funded by UMAYC through Heritage Canada. That program provides interventions for youth ages 10 to 18 who are enrolled in our schools.
We are working in five key areas, the most important one being building cultural identity. The others are career development, leadership development, fine arts and recreation. Heritage Canada is currently funding those, so we are fortunate that we can run some intervention programming.
Ms. Sonja Willier, Language Arts Facilitator, Aboriginal Learning Centre, Edmonton Catholic School District: I work alongside Ms. Sparklingeyes at the Aboriginal Learning Centre, and Ben Calf Robe is part of our program with Edmonton Catholic School District. I am part of a curriculum team of three at the centre. My specific role is language arts, but our role as a team is to provide development for teachers who include an Aboriginal perspective, so that when they are teaching Aboriginal students, they have materials that recognize those students and provide a sense of well being for them in the schools.
We provide support for teachers through resources, both current and recommended. We develop curriculum resources at the centre and test them out to provide the teachers with models of successful strategies for implementing them in the classroom.
We have been to teachers' conventions and provided a few in-services. We have been out to certain conferences in the area. We have also been invited to schools outside of the Edmonton area. We have been out to band-operated schools to provide suggestions on how to integrate an Aboriginal perspective into the classroom setting. We are looking at expanding beyond our centre to networking and providing services in other areas. We are excited about the opportunities before us.
Mr. Sean McGuiness, Principal, Ben Calf Robe School: Thank you, Ms. Sparklingeyes, and Ms. Willier, for being here today.
It is my pleasure to be here today as well, and I appreciate this opportunity. If I may say so, Edmonton Catholic Schools have shown a great devotion to Aboriginal education. Ben Calf Robe School has been around for 22 years, but the Aboriginal Learning Centre is fairly new, about three years old now. One of the exciting things about having the Aboriginal Learning Centre working in partnership with Ben Calf Robe School is we are not just educating or helping native students; we are also educating and helping non-native students. We do believe this is one of the keys to the future.
I have given you a handout and I will highlight a couple things on there for you. I am hoping that the rest of it could also serve to help us in discussions afterwards.
Ben Calf Robe was a well-respected Blackfoot native from Southern Alberta. One of his statements that come to mind is on our school letterhead: ``You need wisdom, work and respect.'' Another statement is: ``Why stay on the side of a mountain when you can be on top?'' It is something that we try to live every day at Ben Calf Robe School. As you heard from Ms. Sparklingeyes, we do believe in choice of program. Ben Calf Robe School is an excellent alternative for our Aboriginal students, but it is not meant for all.
We like to get students at a very young age, if possible. Therefore, in partnership with the Ben Calf Robe Society, we do have a Head Start Program in our school for three- and four-year-olds. Continuing with that thought, we have a kindergarten program called ``Extended Experiences.'' The students follow the curriculum in the morning, and in the afternoon are the experiences — experiences in the community that normally these students would not get with their families, and which are proving to be very valuable.
Edmonton Catholic Schools have, as I said, shown great devotion to the program. We have funding that allows us to have a student-teacher ratio of 18 to 1. It is an expensive venture, but it is paying great dividends. You can see listed on the handout that there is also a cultural program and a spiritual program. I think that is our ``feather,'' if you will. It is what we are best known for, and with the support of the Aboriginal Learning Centre, it is growing and developing into a better program, day by day and year by year.
There are a number of necessities to make this program successful — it has been in place for a number of years — one, of course, being the breakfast/lunch program. It has been proven that we cannot educate kids on an empty stomach. We have kids coming from all over — northeast, central Edmonton, north Edmonton — and their choice is to come to Ben Calf Robe for a number of reasons, mainly the cultural programming. However, not all can get there without transportation. Ms. Sparklingeyes mentioned the UMAYC money, the Canadian Heritage grant money. This also helps us pay for the yellow buses for our students.
Ben Calf Robe was strictly a junior high for years. Now it is a K to 9. It has a larger enrolment than ever before. We reached 255 students this year, and there were 262 last year. It is becoming a choice for more and more.
There are a variety of learners in our school, and some are choosing it for the cultural program, but they are not all regular-program students. We have probably every kind of program that you can possibly run to help students in their learning — the resources, the modifications, the individual pupil plans, balanced literacy, early intervention, reading recovery, study buddies, and the list could go on. We have built a library over the years, in which Ms. Sparklingeyes was instrumental in her days at Ben Calf Robe, which is filled with Aboriginal content of which we are very proud.
We have found that the hands-on activities that students get to experience before doing the written or reading work are paying great dividends. The field trips, of course, are important to us and to the students.
If I may, I will also mention the Ben Calf Robe Society. The society was formed shortly after the school opened, and we have worked in partnership on many ventures for over 22 years. Some of the things that we do together include: the breakfast/lunch program, which I have listed as the B/L, a casino, a youth intervention program, a powwow and a round dance. It has been a great partnership and they are very helpful. You can imagine the funds that I am talking about here. They secure funds year after year to run the breakfast/lunch program, youth intervention program or help us with our powwow. Those things would not be in place without the intervention of the Ben Calf Robe Society.
We think we do a great job of catering to our families. There are many families that move back and forth between reserves and different settings. Whenever they return, they are always welcomed back. It does not matter in terms of enrolment numbers, even though we try to stick to 18 to 1. Also, the events that we run for our families are a very beneficial aspect. Our breakfast/lunch program is a community scene, if you can imagine it. Parents are dropping the kids off and staying and chatting, having some toast with us.
I would like to highlight particularly the Christmas family craft night. It is probably one of the best nights of the year at Ben Calf Robe School. I know from being in that gymnasium on those nights. When you look around, you know it has all been worthwhile.
I do not want to, let's say, harp on the barriers, but of course, as you can imagine, there are some. We do have some challenges, but because we have a dedicated and trusted staff, we work through these barriers. We have had many successes. Some of the issues are socio-economics, poverty and financial constraints from the district. Our operating budget at the school is never what we would like it to be, because we want to provide the very best programming for our students.
There are attendance concerns, and we are still hoping for greater family support. We work on it on a daily basis. Having parent room representatives at our school council meetings has proven to be a good venture. We have a lot of staff in place — a special needs coordinator, a counsellor and a social worker — to help students who have anger management issues. These all cost a huge amount of dollars.
I would like to boldly broadcast here that we are doing great things at Ben Calf Robe School, and it has been there for 22 years, growing and recognized for a number of reasons. One of the main reasons currently is the dedication shown by Edmonton Catholic Schools and the formation of the Aboriginal Learning Centre.
I would like to thank you again for this opportunity. I look forward to the discussion, and I hope that the handout will raise other points that you would like to ponder. If I have missed some that you would like to hear about, please do not hesitate to ask.
The Chairman: Thank you, each and every one of you. It is very exciting to see. I appreciate that you have put down the barriers, and also what exactly you do.
Senator Carney: It is nice to start the morning with such a cheerful presentation. It is not always the case on this committee. I do not understand the connection between the Aboriginal Learning Centre and Ben Calf Robe School. If you are doing such a great job, why do you need the Aboriginal Learning Centre?
Mr. McGuiness: If I may offer an answer, and then I think Ms. Sparklingeyes and Ms. Willier will gladly help me. Ben Calf Robe School has been in existence for 22 years, and that was always a choice for Aboriginal students. If you wanted to take the sort of programming that is strictly for Aboriginal kids, you could do that.
What Edmonton Catholic Schools have ventured into now is serving not just Aboriginal kids at Ben Calf Robe School; they are serving Aboriginal kids at any one of our schools. At our 82 schools, wherever there are Aboriginal students, the Aboriginal Learning Centre can reach out and assist these students in their learning. As well, as I mentioned earlier, the emphasis is not just on educating and assisting Aboriginal students, but also non-Aboriginal students, and we think this is a positive thing for the future.
Senator Carney: You have non-Aboriginal students through the learning centre or Ben Calf Robe?
Mr. McGuiness: The Aboriginal Learning Centre is stationed at St. Alphonsus School, but from there, they service all of the 82 schools, including, Ben Calf Robe.
Senator Carney: Maybe I am being obtuse, but do you have 82 schools in the Catholic system?
Mr. McGuiness: Right. One of them is Ben Calf Robe School, where I am the principal, and then in addition to the other 81 schools, there is the Aboriginal Learning Centre. The Aboriginal Learning Centre also has programs such as the Rainbow Spirit Program, et cetera, that help Aboriginal students in all Edmonton Catholic schools. They have ventured further in the last three years, as opposed to just saying, ``This is the program.''
Senator Carney: It is an outreach program?
Mr. McGuiness: Yes.
Senator Carney: I understand that. Now, how do the students get to you? How do they get to know about you? How do they get to choose you? Are they referred to you? When you say there are 1,200 Aboriginal kids identified, how do they become aware of you? Is it a referral system, or is it through outreach in the community?
Mr. McGuiness: Outreach in the community, advertising, word of mouth, and for Ben Calf Robe School, one of the key items is that the Ben Calf Robe Society runs a Head Start Program. Therefore, many of those kids feed right from that program into our kindergarten.
Senator Carney: You talked about people moving on and off the reserves. Do they hear about you on the reserves too?
Mr. McGuiness: Oh, yes. We have some guests coming on Wednesday from Inuvik. We have tours of Ben Calf Robe School all the time. I think word is spreading through the tours and by word of mouth.
Senator Carney: Obviously, your students are well motivated if you have all of these programs, but what is your dropout rate, and where does it occur?
Mr. McGuiness: For years — and Ms. Sparklingeyes may agree with me on this one — the concern at Ben Calf Robe School was that we did really well with kids until grade 9. It was in the transition from the junior high to the high school that we lost a number of kids.
I know that, because of the interventions of the Aboriginal Learning Centre and the support that students receive at St. Joseph's High School, where most would go from Ben Calf Robe, our success rate is far greater now. Grade 9 is still the toughest year for our kids. We have more students in Grade 9 than any other missing school and getting involved in criminal activity and other things that distract them from their education.
Senator Carney: Ms. Stang, do NAIT students come from all over the place? They come from the Territories too and from all of Alberta, not just Edmonton?
Ms. Stang: Not just Alberta either — they come from Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
Senator Carney: Is that the 7,000 or the Aboriginal students?
Ms. Stang: Just the Aboriginal students. Many students come from Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
Senator Carney: Since Mr. McGuiness has confirmed what we hear and know, which is that grade 8 or grade 9 is the tough time for Aboriginal students, what is it, in your observation, that keeps Aboriginal kids in school? NAIT is a post-secondary institution.
Ms. Stang: We still see that same issue carrying over to the post-secondary level. I would say that at one time, the mean average of Aboriginal post-secondary students was probably about 24. Now we are seeing that mean come down to about 21. Therefore, a lot of these students have to go back and do a lot of upgrading. Since I arrived at NAIT four years ago, we have targeted not only high school students, but we have also started doing presentations at the junior high level.
If we can capture the interest of those children in grades 7, 8 and 9 and get them thinking about post-secondary education, even though it is four years away, they can start planning for when they go to the high school, to grades 10, 11 and 12.
Senator Carney: What do you find is the key motivator? I am trying to understand what, in your experience, keeps Aboriginal students in school. We know what takes them out of school — the street, poverty, other options — but what keeps them in school?
Ms. Stang: From what I have seen in the last four years, the key to motivating our students to stay in high school is to send post-secondary students out there to be role models. I do the presentations, but when they hear what it is like to be a post-secondary student and plan for the future, and talk about going from those low-paying jobs to making that decision to return to school, that has a higher impact coming from our NAIT students than it does coming from me.
On occasion, I have had our NAIT students say to me, ``I need to make sure that I complete my program, because I know that somewhere down the road, either at some social gathering or a function, I will see those young children, and they will ask me if I graduated.'' It is a twofold effect for a lot of our Aboriginal students.
Ms. Sparklingeyes: If I can add to that, we have just looked at our retention rates at St. Francis Xavier High School, which has 30 Aboriginal students, and St. Joseph's High School, which has 84 Aboriginal students. Our retention rates are, at St. Francis, 84 per cent, and at St. Joseph's, 88 per cent. I think those retention rates are where they are because of positions like Ms. Stang's. We have liaison workers in our schools, at both those high schools. They are teacher liaisons. That is what is making a difference. They are Aboriginal staff addressing issues with students as they arise.
Through the work that they are doing and the work that a program like mine does to support our youth, we are building schools that are more inclusive and where our Aboriginal students feel they belong. We are changing that environment. We are also building their personal capacity by working on things like leadership skills, so that they are not fleeing any more. We used to see that — when it is not working, we just flee. We are building their capacity so they are not dropping out in the way they used to.
Senator Carney: That is wonderful.
Mr. McGuiness: Did you want to hear the Ben Calf Robe stats on that?
Senator Carney: Of course.
Mr. McGuiness: Then I will jump in too. I love the stats. Our retention rate this school year is 93 per cent. We started the year with 255 students. We are sitting at 240 right now. Of course, given that we are a K-to-9 school, many of these families have just made choices. This is not a child's choice; this is a family choice. Sometimes they move back to Saskatchewan or other reserves, et cetera. We are quite proud of our 93-per-cent retention rate this school year.
Senator Carney: That is fantastic.
Ms. Stang: At NAIT, our retention rate has increased from about 50 per cent four years ago to approximately 70 per cent. We are retaining 70 per cent of our post-secondary students and they are completing their programs.
Senator Carney: We should package and market that. What they are doing is obviously working.
Ms. Stang: It is important to take into consideration, as Ms. Sparklingeyes says, that we have the Aboriginal liaison council in Edmonton, and the Aboriginal liaison coordinators in each of the post-secondary institutions work together. That also includes Edmonton Catholic and Edmonton Public. The Aboriginal staff and faculty work together as a group, because it is our future, and it is our children. It is not a competition for where the children will go when they enter post-secondary education, but rather, how can we help our students stay in school and make that transition so that they graduate with a post-secondary education. That we all know each other and work together is critical.
Senator Pearson: That leads me to my question. It is encouraging for us to see the things that you are doing, and we have been hearing this in other places. It is something we can strongly recommend and try to ensure that whatever resources come out of Ottawa can support these kinds of things. What about the public system? This is the Catholic system. What is happening in the public system?
Ms. Donna Leask, Supervisor, Aboriginal Education, Edmonton Public Schools: That would be me.
Senator Pearson: I will leave that one then, and we will talk to you later. However, I think there is something striking about the fact that this is the Catholic system, and the way in which you are presumably bringing together the spirituality of the Aboriginal community and Catholic spirituality. It makes for an interesting challenge.
I have lived in India and was always impressed with the remarkable job the Catholic Church did in the schools they were running. So many schools that were being run, and still are being run, by Canadian Jesuits up in Darjeeling, and so on, had a way of being open to what the students brought from their own background without crushing it in some way. I get the sense that this is what is happening. Can you confirm that?
Mr. McGuiness: Absolutely, I could. It has always been an intertwining of the two religions, Catholicism with native spirituality. Even though in Edmonton Catholic Schools, of course, religion class is mandatory, at Ben Calf Robe School, it has always been an intermixing of the two. It is not always Catholicism. Students smudge every morning. The ceremonies, the sweat lodges, et cetera, that students can all participate in are mentioned in this document. There is also a pipe ceremony at our powwow, with elders, so it has always been a good mix of the two.
In my document, I mentioned Sacred Heart. Of course, that is Sacred Heart Church in Edmonton, the church of First Peoples. Father Jim Holland is a regular visitor at our school. He does wonderful work with our students. Our school is blessed every year, and it is a combination of one of our elders, Michael Merrier, and Father Jim Holland. It is quite a scene, actually, to see them working together. It is something of which we have always been very proud.
Ms. Sparklingeyes: If I can just add to that, as Aboriginals, we are a four-part people. The spiritual aspect of life is very important to us, and we feel that we have to develop that in our youth in order for them to conquer some of the barriers that they face. If we can build their spirituality and strength through ceremony, our elders teach us that that is the way our people will have success.
Senator Pearson: That is an excellent point. I am a great believer in ceremony. I think that is appropriate for children and for all of us.
My next question is related to the list of some of your challenges, your barriers, and the variety of learners. There are often discussions in the popular press around FAS, FAE and so on, and I think people are always looking for positive stories about those children; otherwise it sounds so discouraging because it is a lifelong disability. Could you give me some thoughts on how you are working with a variety of learners? I am looking at your list, and I do not know what IOP and EE111 are; I know what LD is, learning disability.
Mr. McGuiness: You mentioned the fetal alcohol. IOP is Integrated Occupational Program, and that would be for students with a lower IQ than average. In a bona fide IOP program, there would be a work study component as well. When Ben Calf Robe School first opened, it was to cater to students from grade 7 to grade 12, and there was meant to be a work study component. I am not sure that there ever was, actually. EE111 would be students who are struggling even more. IQs would be in that 80 range. Learning disability is the last one, the LD. I included those in the paper to show that there are a variety of learners.
Families are making the choice of Ben Calf Robe School for the cultural and spiritual program, as opposed to a special education program. However, it is one of our challenges to be able to cater to such a variety of learners. Our student-teacher ratio is definitely one of the aspects that help these students get some one-on-one time.
Also, this year we are going to hire a special needs coordinator. A Code 44 student is one who suffers from the effects of fetal alcohol, and a Code 42 would be severe emotional/behavioural disorder. Last year at Ben Calf Robe School, we served 33 such students. This year our numbers are down to 16, which is making the school's culture that much better. Last year was a hectic start for us because we had maybe too great a number of coded students. We still did the best we could, but we are having a much better year this year, and that is probably one of the major reasons.
I would agree with you, Senator Pearson, that FAS is a life sentence, but we have such a giving, loving, caring staff, and that is probably what I would broadcast first about Ben Calf Robe School, is the quality of the teachers that we get there, and who do not just stay for a year.
We are very proud of the retention rate for our teachers, because it was not always that way, and we feel we are serving the students well. We would not say, ``We cannot help you here,'' because we feel that we can.
Senator Pearson: FAS students often demand a highly structured environment; you are able to provide that?
Mr. McGuiness: Yes, and one of the points I make here is that the structure of the routine needs to be consistent. Those students especially — I would agree with you — count on that. We do have some disruptions, and I will give you one example. We had Jann Arden in our school this week, and we did disrupt the routine, but we felt it was well worth it. However, we did have some difficulties with some students who, although they would not admit it to me, count on that routine. It is very evident that they do.
Senator Sibbeston: I would like to focus on the demographics of the Aboriginal people in the city and also the motivation to provide for Aboriginal people in the school systems. I am curious to know what is driving these advancements that are occurring throughout the various schools. Is the Aboriginal population increasing?
Mr. McGuiness: Yes.
Senator Sibbeston: Also, what kind of a society is Edmonton? Is it a gentle, open kind of society, or is there much resistance to the work that you are doing?
Ms. Stang: Well, it is always challenging, Senator Sibbeston, but a lot of the motivation comes from within ourselves, and the amount of work that we put out will be the amount of reward that we get back. Is it challenging and discouraging at times? Yes, it is. However, again, this is where we play a major role. When we talk about the Aboriginal population increasing, I think we also have to share that information with people in our own institutions.
At NAIT, every semester when we have a new group of instructors, I will do a presentation on cultural awareness, on how to approach students, and explain to a lot of the staff that when the students are not showing up in their classrooms, do not come and see me a week later. Come and see me the day that that student is not there, because most of the time, there are family issues or other personal things going on. We try to address some of those issues and barriers for a lot of our students. However, a lot of this is driven by the staff and as individuals.
My motivating factor is, as I said, that these individuals are the future of Canada. When we are having five children compared to the two children that everyone else is having, it is going to be a grave concern for Canadian economics.
Mr. McGuiness: Maybe, Ms. Sparklingeyes, it is fair to mention the study that Marnie Robb did of the growing Aboriginal population in Edmonton. I do not know if you know the stats, but —
Ms. Sparklingeyes: Well, the stats show that Edmonton's Aboriginal population could double within the next 10 to 15 years. We know that we will have more Aboriginal students in our schools. We also know that we will need to have interventions if those students are going to have success. The stats tell us that eventually, the Caucasian population will be the minority, and we will have other cultures represented.
Therefore, if we can learn how to teach Aboriginal students well, we can learn how to teach those other cultures well also. When we look at that data, we are trying to put forth best practices for working with Aboriginal children that hopefully will cross over to working with other cultures.
Yes, there are challenges. We are trying to change systems, and systems do not change easily. There is resistance. There is that old guard that does not want to change. Yes, we face barriers within our own system. We always face barriers because of funding. There is not enough money to do what we want to do and what we know needs to be done.
What pushes us forward is exactly what Ms. Stang was talking about — personal experience, knowing what it was like to be the minority when we were growing up, trying to make a difference for our youth so they do not make the same mistakes that we made. Being supporters and mentors for our youth is what pushes us on.
Senator Sibbeston: I came from a little community in the Northwest Territories to university when I was young, and I was suddenly in a strange environment in the city. It was a tough transition, and I suppose that still goes on. I presume that Aboriginal people who live in the city are fairly urbanized, but people who come from the rural areas would still find being in a city quite different, and a challenge. I suspect that the further the students come, the more difficult it is, and I suppose there is a certain dropout rate because of that?
Ms. Stang: We have an individual by the name of Nona German working out of our office at NAIT. She is the Northern Student Services Advisor and she helps those students who come from the North, both from Nunavut and NWT, to make that transition. She goes so far as to pick up these students at the airport, and then when they arrive here, she helps them find housing.
I have done that on occasion as well, because we do have students who come from reserves, and the experience is very similar. We take them around the campus, introduce them to their instructors and make them welcome in our centre at NAIT, where they have a place of their own and are not feeling that they are all by themselves. They have a chance to meet other students from their communities, or maybe a nearby community, and they can make that connection. That is what keeps our students in the program. If they do not feel connected, they will not stay. We work hard to ensure that some of their personal needs are met, sometimes even prior to their arrival.
The apprenticeship board coordinators will call and say, ``We will be sending seven people down and they will be arriving on March 28,'' and they will give you the flight number. That way, housing is probably established long before they even arrive, and we will help them get their tickets to go home at Christmas or even at the end of the eight-week term. There is a lot of support.
Senator Carney: We are talking about the increase in Aboriginal students, but what about the increase in Aboriginal teachers? Mr. McGuiness, at your school, do all the students and the teachers have to be Catholic? In B.C., you do not have to be a Catholic necessarily to teach in a Catholic school. Do you have Aboriginal instructors at NAIT? Do you have Aboriginal teachers at your school? Obviously, you do in the learning centre, but what is happening on the teaching side?
Mr. McGuiness: We do have Aboriginal staff members. We would like to have more Aboriginal teachers than we do. We are asking the district to consider this a high-needs area. In the education field, there are some obvious high- needs areas. Instrumental music teachers, physics teachers and secondary French immersion teachers are three that come to mind as probably the highest. We are asking our human resources department to treat the recruitment of Aboriginal teachers in the same vein, that is, as a high-needs area. Yes, teachers in Edmonton Catholic schools have to be Catholic, because they are the teachers of the faith. However, we also addressed this issue by trying to get our human resources department to look at the connectivity of native spirituality to Catholicism, hoping that we can recruit more Aboriginal teachers.
Senator Carney: Where do they come from? Does NAIT have a teaching program?
Ms. Stang: No, we do not have a teaching program. We are a technology school, mostly engineering, but we do have several people of Aboriginal descent teaching in our programs, specifically in the carpentry area. An individual from Saddle Lake teaches in that program, and we try to hire Aboriginal staff for our programs that are delivered on site on some of the First Nations reserves.
NAIT has been very supportive. Our president, Dr. Sam Shaw, is trying to hire more Aboriginal individuals in programs where we have a high number of Aboriginal students. Again, they would serve as role models, but also as instructors. This past year, we hired a cultural elder, which is a first for NAIT. That provides support services for a lot of our First Nations students who need that spiritual guidance when they are on campus. We are hoping to increase that service.
Senator Carney: If you need role models and you need teachers for this generation, it is wonderful that we have the people at the table, but I am just wondering where they will come from.
Mr. McGuiness: If I may add to that, one of the sources that we have located recently is in Saskatchewan. There are two programs there, but let's start with SUNTEP — I know that one better — Saskatchewan Urban Native Teacher Education Program. There is also ITEP, the Indian Teacher Education Program. They produce a number of graduates every year, and it is another location that we are encouraging our human resources department to tap into.
We go to Saskatchewan every year. It has been a usual jaunt to get there and interview and recruit from there. We are asking our human resources department to make sure that every time we go there, there are at least three, four or five Aboriginal teachers who could be interviewed. That is one location that they would be coming from. We hope, of course, since closer to home would be easier, that more can be graduated from the University of Alberta as well.
Ms. Stang: Lewis Cardinal actually represents the University of Alberta. He could probably address that.
Senator Carney: I would go back to my early experiences in this field. The criticism was, kids came in, took a course, the funding ended, they went back and there were no jobs. Then somebody identified them, they were shipped out, took another course, went back, and no jobs. Has that pattern been broken? I will ask Ms. Stang.
Ms. Stang: There has been more participation by a lot of the First Nations groups in looking at what best serves their community. Yes, I agree with you, at one time, you probably could have 10 people studying heavy-duty mechanics, but there was only one job on the reserve. However, now a lot of our leaders are encouraging their children to leave the reserves to go to school in the urban centres and making them realize that they may not go home to work; that is reality.
They are being a little more conservative when it comes to training programs. They are no longer looking at a 10- week program, but at the children from their community who will graduate with a post-secondary diploma or maybe a degree, as opposed to short-term, band-aid solutions for employment on reserves.
Senator Carney: If it is not too personal a question, where did the four of you come from? How did you get to where you are?
Ms. Stang: Well, I am Metis, and my grandparents and my parents had a piece of land just outside of Kehewin Reserve, which is a First Nations reserve. We grew up speaking Cree. My father started working on the railroad, so we had to leave our community when I was five years old.
Senator Carney: Is that in Alberta?
Ms. Stang: In Alberta. It is about a three-hour drive out of Edmonton. We finally settled in Edmonton. In our household we were always encouraged to speak Cree, and we were taught lessons by my parents and grandparents that were just as important as other lessons, and we mattered just as much as everybody else, even though we happened to be of a different skin colour. There were challenges when I was in elementary and high school.
I think we have all experienced racism, but the family support that I received gave me a lot of the strength that I needed to carry on. My grandmother and my grandfather were great role models. My grandfather is Metis and so is my grandmother. My grandfather spoke French, English and Cree, and so he was able to sort of go in and out through various cultures and gain knowledge from them, and come back and give us strength to work within our own communities. We were taught to always keep our culture and our language, but to never forget where we came from, and that once we got an education, we were not any better or any more important than anybody else. You have to always remember the shoes you walked in when you came to this earth.
Ms. Sparklingeyes: I grew up on Goodfish Lake Reserve, which is part of Saddle Lake. It is 230 kilometres northeast of Edmonton. I spent all my childhood there and then came to Edmonton when I was 18. I thought I was going to be a journalist. I thought I was going to be sitting over there reporting about things like this, but after graduating from journalism school at Grant MacEwan, I fell away from that and decided that I just wanted to do something to help my people.
I got involved in the education scene, and I have been there for 10 years. I started at Ben Calf Robe in 1993 and worked there for nine years before moving over to the Aboriginal Learning Centre. What motivates me and keeps me working in the community are the relationships that I am able to build with our youth. The stories that I could tell you about the children whom I work with are heart-warming and keep me going every day.
Senator Carney: Clearly, you are making a difference. It is always very satisfying to do a job in which you know you are making a difference.
Ms. Willier: I am from Northern Alberta, from a reserve called Sucker Creek Cree First Nation, and I am lucky enough to bring that Northern perspective to the city where I work. I have been working with Edmonton Catholic Schools for 14 years, although only the last two with the Aboriginal Learning Centre.
When I was working in the classrooms, teaching mostly elementary students, I always thought my role was to bring my background, the community and the culture to the students. Little did I know, but this was an integrated approach. All this time, I was setting the foundation for what I am doing today. My background and upbringing was very much education-oriented. My father was an RCMP member, one of the first in Alberta, for almost 20 years. Education was pushed in my family. My sisters are also educators. When my journey brought me to Edmonton, I was able to celebrate my country life, so to speak, and my upbringing, and bring that perspective and that almost ``social studies live textbook'' feel into the classroom. Hands-on is always the best way, to me, of connecting with the kids — making things, bringing culture right into the classroom, and celebrating it first, of course, with my background, but then being open to all cultural celebrations.
I work specifically in language arts now, but I am also a social studies teacher at heart and have been working on the new draft social studies program with Alberta Learning. I would like to keep my hands in a few baskets to try to bring that cultural identity awareness and, especially for our Aboriginal students, that sense of belonging, that sense of trust, that sense of a safe place in the schools.
That has been more or less my journey, to keep going with our Aboriginal students and make sure that when they leave the school, they are proud of who they are and where they come from.
Mr. McGuiness: I am non-Aboriginal, but I am thinking of converting. I have been with Edmonton Catholic Schools for 22 years now, and it was in the mid-'90s when I was first asked about going to Ben Calf Robe as assistant principal. There were a number of wonderful experiences that I can reflect on from that time.
One, if I may share it with you, was the first meet-the-teacher night. We serve buffalo burgers, and it is a really quite a night, with a huge turnout. I felt like a minority person. They were not too many non-Aboriginal people in the group that night, and it gave me a perspective on what many Aboriginal people would feel like living here in Edmonton. It motivated me. In returning to Ben Calf Robe School now as principal, I feel blessed, because in the mid-'90s there were many more struggles than we have now.
Even though we are a bigger school than ever before, we have so many more success stories and less negativity. The police do not visit us. It just does not happen any more. That is why I feel so blessed to come back now and see the gains because of the people with whom we work, the accomplishments, and be able to compare the mid-'90s to now. It has been a great experience.
Senator Carney: My last question is, are you able to track your students? I know that that is almost impossible in faculties and institutions, but because there is the transition into the school and then into community, is there any way that you can keep track of what happens to them?
Mr. McGuiness: We are able to track the kids that move from our grade 9 into high schools, mainly because of the work that Ms. Sparklingeyes does; she can let me know. Earlier this year she told me how many of our students from last year, our grade 9s, are enrolled in grade 10, and of course, at one point she reported to me that it was 100 per cent. It was something to celebrate.
Ms. Sparklingeyes: We are very aware that we typically lose students in grades 9 and 10, so we built in some programs to help our students make that transition, programs that I do with them when they are in grade 9 that help them to get to grade 10. Then I track them from grade 10, and this is relatively new, because this is a new program, but the students that I have been able to track who have had the extra supports are doing very well. They are in grades 10 and 11 right now.
We do have success stories about the students that I have been able to keep track of who are now at the University of Alberta and other post-secondary institutions, and that is about relationship building. I want to emphasize that the reason we have success, and I think Ms. Stang would probably agree, is that we are able to build relationships with our students as Aboriginal people. We share our stories with our students, and building those relationships gives them that extra support.
Ms. Stang: You have to keep in mind that even though there are many of us Aboriginal people, our communities are very small, because somebody who knows somebody knows somebody else who knows you. You could be at a powwow, you could be at a Metis function, and someone will say, ``I have not seen you in a couple of years. How are you doing?'' You do end up bumping into one another somewhere down the road, and that helps us to keep track of our students.
Senator Carney: We do that all the time, Senator Chalifoux. I used to live in the Territories, and together we can track people we did not know each other even knew. It does give you a sense of place, so I understand that. It is a good point. Thank you.
The Chairman: Ms. Sparklingeyes, what kind of programs do you use to make sure that the students are given all the encouragement possible to make the transition from grade 9 to grade 10?
Ms. Sparklingeyes: We do practical things. We bring our students to NAIT, and things like that encourage our students to stay in school. We will take our grade 9 students on tours of the high schools that they may choose to go to. It is practical things like introducing them to the supports that are in place, introducing them to the liaison workers, the Aboriginal counsellors, the Aboriginal staff, and the other staff who work in those schools.
We also build what we call ``tribal councils,'' but which are really peer support groups. We meet weekly with the Aboriginal students once they get to grade 10 and do things like team building and leadership development. It is done so that they will feel welcome and that they belong when they arrive on that first day in September. When I first started doing this and looked at our dropout rates between grades 9 and 10, we had students who would only show up in high school for an hour, and then they felt so overwhelmed, they would leave.
However, if you can introduce them to that high school in a safe way, by giving them a tour with Aboriginal staff, and Aboriginal students who are already having success in that high school, it is all very practical. These are all things that are very easy to do, but they make a difference. We had a 100 per cent success rate with our last transition program in September.
Ms. Stang: I think it does make a big difference. During registration at NAIT, I make sure that I have a booth set up, so that when our Aboriginal students are going through that registration line, they see one face that they know and someone they can make contact with, because it is really important for our Aboriginal students to feel that there is a connection. We do everything in our power to ensure that they feel this is where they belong by making ourselves very visible.
The Chairman: I want to thank all of you very much. You make me feel that that as Aboriginal people, professional people, you are doing everything in your power to assist our children to attain their goals and to bring out the many talents of our people. Your presentations are very well taken. They are being recorded, and we will make sure that they will be part of the action plan for change for Aboriginal youth.
I would like to ask Shirly McNeill and Theresa Cardinal from the Amiskwaciy Academy to present next.
Welcome to this very important hearing especially focused on our children coming into the cities, and the children who have lived here for many years and have lost their culture and their identities. I want to thank you both for attending these hearings. Everything that you say is being recorded, so that our staff can take into consideration your issues, your success, and your possible solutions in making sure that all governments are aware of what is happening.
Ms. Shirly McNeill, Assistant Vice-Principal, Amiskwaciy Academy: I would like to first say that I talked with Phyllis this morning. She has been on extended medical leave and thought she would be able to come today, but just is not well enough yet. She is with me as I talk, and certainly with me every day as we work together.
I spoke a little last night about Amiskwaciy Academy and its presence within Edmonton Public School District. We offer students the opportunity to choose an education from an Aboriginal perspective. We have non-Aboriginal students making that choice, but for the most part, they are Aboriginal.
It is important that they receive a sound academic education as well as an equally strong cultural component. The very essence of what we do, and I hear Phyllis speak about it often, is that we treat education as ceremony, so when our students enter the door of our school, they are in a place of reverence. It is part and parcel of the way they behave toward the people in the building and toward what they are learning. It is very much a spiritual place.
As a member of the staff for the last two years and surrounded by the culture, I work hardest at trying to learn about the spirit.
Phyllis has helped a great deal with that, because she speaks about the fact that we are all spiritual. I am not sure that I understood that well until I started working at Amiskwaciy, but I do now, and I am always very conscious of that part of the work.
Every minute of every day that I am part of that school, I learn so much about what is important and about the great gift that Aboriginal people can give to society. I was thinking last night, Senator Chalifoux, when you were asking, ``What is your dream,'' ``Please ask me,'' but you did not, so you will hear it today. It is that the rest of society has the opportunity to experience what I experience on a daily basis, working with Aboriginal people, with young people and their great gift.
I experience it 300-fold because of the number of people in the building, and it is something that will enrich our society as the opportunities ever increase for young people as they move into various careers and neighbourhoods and into the community, working in extracurricular activities. It is something that we are sorely missing as a society. At our school, we are giving students the opportunity to find out who they are as young people, and also as Aboriginal people, and have that become a permanent aspect that they take with them. I think that speaks to why I am there.
As you work in a school, and I have worked in high schools my whole life, you tend to develop a vision of what you want, and certainly your vision is part of the bigger vision. Phyllis and I were talking one day about the visions that we each had.
For example, Angus McBeath, our superintendent, wanted to be sure that as a district, we were doing right by our Aboriginal students, and that was his vision for the school. Phyllis's vision is that the young people who pass through our school will go back to their communities and the communities will be better for having them. Mine is that the young people in our school have the experiences that are part of high school, so that it is an Aboriginal person who is the graduating class president; it is an Aboriginal group of students who are on the basketball team; and it is an Aboriginal who makes the presentation in the classroom; and that by supporting their peers, they are all experiencing what high school is about.
A year and a half ago, in September, John Ralston Saul came to speak to our students, and I remember that one of the things he said was that we must give our students a strong sense of who they are that stays with them when they are ready to leave, so that it cannot be swayed or get lost and not be there for them to carry into their future, into their post-secondary education and into the career they choose.
I hope that you are getting a sense of what it is like for me to be there — and it is a great honour. I was thinking, as Mr. McGuiness spoke about applying to become an Aboriginal, about a comment from years ago that I always liked: You are either Irish or you want to be. For me now, you are either Aboriginal or you want to be. It has been such a rich experience for me, and in turn, I think, for our students, to have Phyllis Cardinal, Theresa Cardinal and I working so closely together, because it is a reflection of how things should be, in that representatives of cultures can work together closely and all can bring their contributions.
As Phyllis and I have said often, we are one soul in two bodies. It is an interesting experience for us to work together because of where we have come from. However, we are so attuned now to what we are doing, what is important and, I think, where we want to go for our young people. Thank you.
Ms. Theresa Cardinal, Administrator, Amiskwaciy Academy: There are two things that I want to tell you about that are key components of Amiskwaciy. Number one is that spirituality is a strong component of our school program. As you walk into our school every morning, you will see that there is a smudge at the door. Students can participate in the smudge if they want, but they are not forced to. That greets them as they come in.
The other part is our group of singers. A young man who was with us for four or five months taught our students, and they — fast learners, of course — love singing, so every morning we have a song before we start classes. This morning, for example, two students who are fairly new in the circle took it on. Some forgot some of the Cree words, but they still gave it their best shot, and that is all that we ask of them.
The other part of spirituality is that we have a sweat lodge. We were fortunate enough to be able to build one — the students helped — behind the Poundmaker-Nechi Centre in St. Albert. We are also lucky to have a sweat lodge within our school. If you decide to visit, you will see a sign saying ``sweat lodge,'' and it is very nice. It is a sauna, but it was built in the form of a sweat lodge. That is also becoming a spiritual learning and teaching centre, not just for our students, but also for parents and any other interested community members who would like to learn about the protocols, to learn more about the teachings of our people.
That is, I believe, one of the keys and that is what brings me joy — to allow the students to reclaim their spirit, because that is what we as a people are doing at this time, reclaiming many things that we have lost in the past 100 years. We are trying to reclaim that for our students in some form or fashion, and they are also doing that for themselves.
Dr. Cardinal has spoken many times about the other important part of our school life: no blame. That means that as soon as a student walks through the door and begins to tell me, or a teacher, that, ``My parents were drinking; my parents were at bingo,'' that is another reality. Maybe they do not even have somewhere that they can call home. As soon as you come through that door, you are ours. If you are hungry, we will feed you. If you have a concern or a problem, we will help you. We have AADAC and Nechi services here. We will help you as much as we can. Your only responsibility, as soon as you walk through the door, is to sit at the desk and learn. That is all we ask of you.
They really seem to buy into that. Sometimes teachers will bring students to me to talk to because they are behaving in a negative way. That is what we do, and we hear many stories, but in the final analysis, you cannot use that as an excuse to prevent you from getting the education that Amiskwaciy Academy can provide. All we ask is that you assume that responsibility of being a student within our school. I have alluded to some of the issues that our students face, and of course, one is finances. Most bands in the province, and across Canada probably, do not have the financial resources to help their students buy bus passes or pay student fees, and some of them do not have places to live. They just go from friend to friend, home to home, wherever they can. Those are some of the real issues that face our students at Amiskwaciy Academy, and probably most Aboriginal students in the city of Edmonton.
Because I am an educator from a First Nation community, from Saddle Lake, I see the differences in the systems of education in the First Nation community and the community here in Edmonton. One of the most important things I have noticed is that there are no politics involved in the school in which I work today, and that is one of the major reasons that I love my job. I still love going to that school every day, and I still advocate for my students who enter that door every day. I see that difference as being very important, because we have a principal, Dr. Cardinal, who is Aboriginal and knows what needs to happen to make the school successful. On that note, I will open it for questions.
Senator Sibbeston: Ms. Cardinal, when you say, and tell the students, that their only responsibility is to learn, I believe you, and I appreciate that it is part of an approach that says, ``You are here to learn primarily.'' You are not saying, though, to the child, ``Disregard all of your problems, we will help you.'' It is like Bush saying after 9/11, ``Get on with your life.'' It is not that easy. A certain amount of mourning and healing has to go on.
I believe that in one respect, it is a positive attitude, saying, ``It is a beautiful set-up. It is wonderful. Everything is here for you. It is in your favour, and all you have to do is just be here and learn, and do not worry about anything else.'' However, the reality is that in some cases, there are all sorts of problems that a person goes through. Are saying, ``At least while you are here, have a good time''?
Ms. Cardinal: Yes, exactly. It is all about relationship building, and you see that in our classrooms. It is not just administration or the front-office staff. It is teachers building that relationship, and more often than not, they are the ones at the grassroots level, helping in the process of making that day as joyful as possible for the student.
Senator Sibbeston: You say that you see differences in education systems and that you appreciate that there is no politics in your school. Do you see situations in other schools, in the remoter areas or on reserves, where the school system is run by Aboriginal people, that are not as good as what you have here at your school? I get the impression that it is a fairly ideal situation, where you have a lot of commitment and good, high-quality staff, and you are providing an excellent opportunity for kids to learn. However, as we know, things are not always that way. Do you want to comment on that and what makes the difference?
Ms. Cardinal: I see so much potential for these First Nation community or any other community schools to bring in programs, to always keep in mind that the student is the reason that we are there. The First Nation community schools are, technically, private schools, because they are under federal jurisdiction, but there is so much they could do to change the education system. My view is that it could possibly start there. However, they are small communities in which politics play a big part, and the politics involves a leadership of families that would like to see things happen a certain way, and so they will do what they think is good for the community. That is not bad, but it is not always to the benefit of the community as a whole.
Senator Pearson: Both presentations are fascinating, because you are both showing, I think, a best-practices model. I found your comment about education being a ceremony very exciting. It is certainly not something I see necessarily in the schools that some of my grandchildren attend. However, it is something I have seen in other countries, and I think it is an element that we should reinforce.
We are learning from you on this trip. If you have learned from your experience, we are learning from you, and thank you for sharing it.
It seems to me that you are describing spirituality as a form of values rather than ideology; is that correct?
Ms Cardinal: Yes. You are right on that.
Senator Pearson: That is why it is easier to combine it with a Catholic system or another system. When it is combined you reinforce that aspect of human beings without imposing your own beliefs on them.
I see emerging a sense of identity that is more tied to that ceremonial or spiritual system than the identity coming from the reserve or the band. Could you comment please?
That is a sociological question, but I feel it is very important to ask. I think it is a very important component of what you are doing.
Ms McNeill: If I understand you correctly, you are saying that when we enter the door, we are one, whether we are coming from this reserve or that reserve. That is very much the way it is; it is a non-issue for our students.
Senator Pearson: I think it is something that we could learn from, and the kinds of schools that welcome children in that way really do have more success. That attitude speaks to the whole atmosphere of the school, and I have always felt that a good atmosphere makes learning successful. No matter how good individual teachers are you will have difficulty retaining students and reaching them if you cannot create that atmosphere.
Ms McNeill: We have visitors in the school all the time. Our last visitors were from England and New Zealand, and they commented on the atmosphere and the feeling that is in the school.
Senator Pearson: My second question really relates to the flexibility of the Alberta system. Is the system flexible enough? I mean, you have standards to keep, but is it flexible enough for you to organize in ways that are more child- centred?
I have observed that different provinces make it quite difficult for this kind of atmosphere to be created. Some provinces have these credits and so on, and the kids do not get a sense of identity as they used to when I was a child, because they move from class to class, and they do not spend their time with the same kids all the time.
Ms McNeil: We offer the curriculum that will get our students to the post-secondary school of their of choice. The academic courses are as they would be at any high school, and the options that we choose are the ones that reflect the nature of our students. The language that we offer is Cree. The student may choose to study Aboriginal studies. We are looking at offering a course called ``culture through the arts,'' so the students will be given the opportunity to learn various art mediums and learn their culture and history. We offer CTS programming that is reflective of the students' interests. We offer cosmetology, construction, computers, foods, and fashion courses that are offered at other high schools. We are within the Alberta curriculum to do what we see works best for our students.
Senator Pearson: Are your superintendents supportive of this school?
Ms McNeill: Yes.
Senator Pearson: It is important to spend time building trusting relationships. Many children have not learned to trust at home and it is indeed a valuable lesson to be learned.
Congratulations, and good continuation. I hope nobody ever cuts you off.
Senator Carney: I share Senator Pearson's comments about the role that the academies can play. However, I do not know what ``Amiskwaciy'' means. I am the out-of-towner. What does it mean, and how did the school begin?
Ms Cardinal: When Dr. Cardinal was hired to plan this school, her first task was to gather a group of elders who would help her in her work. They would be the foundation upon which the school's mission and values would be built. When the time came to choose the name of the school she left the decision to the elders.
Amiskwaciy Waskican, beaver hills house was the original name of the area where our people came to trade and so survive. The elders felt that because education is a form of survival the name Amiskwaciy Waskican would be appropriate for the school. Amiskwaciy means beaver hills and so it is called Beaver Hills Academy. That is a literal translation, but there is meaning behind the name, and it is historically connected to all Aboriginal peoples, because there were all different tribes that came to this area for trade and survival.
Senator Carney: To take it from a conception point like to that and to deliver the kind of programs you are obviously doing would take exceptional teachers. When did this all start, and where did you get your teachers?
Ms McNeill: This is our third year.
Senator Carney: So you are relatively new?
Ms McNeill: Yes, we are very new.
We spent eight or nine months planning the school. It was like a baby that was nurtured through the process. We opened the doors in September 2000. The teachers were recruited in the normal way, but Dr. Cardinal insisted that we hire only the best teachers, whether they were Aboriginal or not.
Senator Carney: It seems to me that what you describe is a role model for all kinds of schools in Canada. That school is a ceremony and there is reverence connected with teaching. There is a relationship between teachers and students. I wish my kids could go to a school like that. They are mostly Irish.
Based on this experience of the three years, what are the best practices that you can identify for all schools? This academy obviously has things to teach the broader Canadian society. Would you like to identify some of those best practices for us?
Ms Cardinal: Well, one of them relates to what you just talked about, teachers and relationship building. Dr. Cardinal, decided that it would be very effective if we took all the teachers, all the staff, custodians included, to a retreat in a place called Taratema, where there is no TV and only one pay phone. So a lot of that work, that building collaboratively happens in August every year for us, and that is one of the most important things that happens, because we build the team there, and it is not just paperwork sitting at the desk. We sit together in a sweat lodge, and that is also part of the teamwork, part of the whole process of everybody buying into making sure that student gets a holistic education.
Senator Carney: How many teachers and how many students do you have? How many people can you get into this sweat lodge? I am trained in economics. I want the optimum number.
Ms Cardinal: I have seen sweat lodges that can handle from a dozen to about 30 people.
Senator Carney: How many staff do you have at the academy?
Ms Cardinal: The sweat lodge in the academy?
Senator Carney: How many do you have at the school?
Ms McNeill: We have 30 staff, including the support custodians.
Senator Carney: How many students do you have?
Ms McNeill: We started the year with 360 students.
Senator Carney: That is very good.
Ms McNeill: I would like to add to what Theresa was said about how we are and how we shape ourselves.
We are in year three, and we are very much doing year three work. In the first year you really just do things to get yourself up and running and get some of the systems in place that are going to get you through as a school. We moved in January of the second year, so we had a little bit of year one again as far as moving into our space that we are going to be in forever.
This year we are doing a lot of work on an instructional focus, which is done throughout the district; each school chooses where they want to put their energies. We made reading our major focus. Throughout this year we have concentrated ourselves in addressing this issue, and we are seeing an improvement. Our October and February testing has shown that our efforts are making a difference.
We realize that if students are coming into high school with reading levels
below grade 9, they will be unlikely to get through high school.
We look at the whole child and realize that education is only one aspect of that child.
One of the questions I asked last night was what role does education have in each of the young people's lives? I can see from the answer that it is either part of the problem or part of the solution.
It is very important for me, as an educator, that the education that I am a part of is part of that solution. Our staff is young and many are first-year teachers. We also have second-career teachers, but they are new to teaching. We are working hard to get a better sense of the composite picture of education. We have come to realize that the composite picture is threefold.
We realize that we have to address the healing aspect of our children. We have to address ``programming.'' We have to meet the needs of our kids. Are we attuned to how our young people learn? We are working in that area.
Then we are taking a look at a whole third area that has to do with structure. Are we set up to best meet the needs of the student?
So getting back to your original question: What are we doing? I think that we are very much aware that each year you is a different year that makes different demands on you and you address the demands differently. So you do not do year one stuff in year three. This is year three for us. I would say that that we are where we should be in year three and probably a little beyond.
Senator Carney: I have identified your best practices as being: a sense of belonging, trust, a safe place, respect for learning, holistic approach, structure, flexibility, and pride through relationship building.
Ms McNeill: Yes.
Senator Carney: Is there anything to add to that list? When will you graduate your first students?
Ms McNeill: I would add to the list the high standard that we hold our students to. Dr. Cardinal often speaks to the students, and she has very few messages; I think that is a model that I could and would use.
We strive for 80 per cent, and nothing less is acceptable. We teach our young men and women to be proud of their race.
Senator Carney: Is 80 per cent first of the class?
Ms McNeill: Yes, but that is what we strive for. We have that expectation of accountability of our staff. We expect our staff the put things in place so that all the students can reach that grade.
In our first year of operation we had children that had come into our school in the higher grades. As a result, we had graduates in our first year. This year will be the first year of graduation for children that began their studies with us.
Senator Carney: I am very impressed with this model, and I wish you good luck.
Senator Pearson: I have one quick concerning ``bullying.'' I expect that you have managed to deal with that problem, but when encounter it what do you do about it? I imagine that you do not practice zero tolerance.
Ms McNeill: We do not encounter many behavioural issues. Occasionally we do, but I believe that our model is very successful. When we encounter a problem we address is immediately. We follow the model that Edmonton Public Schools has set up to deal with the issue of bullying. If the situation requires a suspension we speak to the student when he or she returns. That meeting includes the student, a counsellor, an administrator and an elder. We punished the child with a suspension but after that we assure them that we will make the future better. We ask the student how we can help the situation. We try to get to the bottom of the problem.
We have very few second offences, and there is very little concern about classroom management, misbehaviours in class, or misbehaviour in the hallways. I think it comes back to that whole idea about ceremony and the respect that we have for each other and what is happening in the school.
Senator Pearson: I think ``respect'' is one of the key words. It is mutual.
Senator Sibbeston: Is this model going to be incorporated into the Edmonton school system? What was the motivation for this Aboriginal school?
The Chairman: Maybe I can answer that, because I was involved right at the very beginning. I was involved with Dr. Cardinal's vision and her dream.
It started not three years ago, but about six years ago. When she started, she had so many doors slammed in her face that I do not know how she ever continued.
When she came to Ottawa and she met with me, we tried to open doors, and nobody would listen to us. Nobody saw the vision, and yet she never gave up.
The school they had was just not suitable. When they moved to the municipal airport amid all kinds of concerns, the community was up in arms, the airlines were up in arms, and the hotel was up in arms. But thank goodness that she and — what was the gentleman's name?
Ms McNeill: Angus McBeath.
The Chairman: Dr. Cardinal and Mr. McBeath never ever gave up, and they just kept pushing. They finally got the old municipal airport building, but it was not without a lot of stereotyping, and a lot of discrimination. Thanks to their tenacity it finally happened.
I can give you one example that happened not that long ago. We have our little task force on gangs. What had happened just before then was that a group of Aboriginal kids had gotten into a fight with some non-Aboriginal kids on the train. It was gangs; it was everything. Then everyone was after the Aboriginal kids.
I got a report saying that it was the students from Amiskwaciy that were beating everyone up. I phoned Dr. Cardinal right away and told her about what was being said and what was in the papers. I knew better than to believe the rumours. She immediately took charge. She had people go out with cameras and take pictures of everything that was going on at the bus stops, at the Kingsway Garden Mall, on the buses, and low and behold, it was not Amiskwaciy students. She took full control of the situation.
Dr. Cardinal has struggled for many years to realize her dream. In spite of all the roadblocks, in spite of all the discrimination and the racial slurs that were going around, this is what has happened. She deserves a medal.
Senator Sibbeston: Are other school districts and other jurisdictions interested in this school model?
Ms McNeill: Oh, yes. We have visitors almost weekly from various school districts, whether it is Alberta, the Northwest Territories, or British Columbia. We had visitors from England and New Zealand. There is a lot of interest in our school.
Senator Sibbeston: The Aboriginal people have taken control of their schools themselves in Fort Ray. There is also a Roman Catholic school, Grandin College, in Fort Smith, that has produced a lot of leaders.
It seems that when someone has a novel idea there is at first a societal resistance, but once it comes about, it is eventually hailed as the best thing that has ever happened.
This school operates on common sense. The people that can see the vision understand the benefits, while others who cannot see the vision view it as a threat. It is just common sense that this model will work.
The Chairman: I know that First Nations students are supposed to have funding available to them from the reserves, but it never seems to happen that they get the funds.
I would like you to discuss the funding difficulties. Do you have a general concept of culture, or do you recognize the separate cultures and respect each other's culture and heritage?
Ms Cardinal: I believe that we do respect every culture that comes into our school. We do not draw lines between what Cree, Blackfoot, and Metis do. We just respect what they do in terms of the different ways that they approach customs and events. As we have stated before, we have had all the different cultures in our school.
In our first-year graduating class, we had some people from the south and even to this day we have a variety of cultures in our school. We have general ceremonies that every culture can participate in. We embrace all of the different cultures.
Ms McNeill: There are difficulties concerning funding. At the high school level there are associated fees for supplies for courses such as: construction, food studies, and fashion. Our students, for the most part, are not able to pay those fees. They have trouble sometimes paying the book resource fee, which is $51. Some of them have trouble buying a $20 bus pass every month. We front those costs, because it is more important for them to be in school and to have the opportunity in the class. That becomes costly for the school.
I think the other concern that we have about fees is that the money that comes into the school is to provide the education for the student, to pay for the building and to pay for the staff.
What we see with our students are their needs, and often we do not have the money to give them. Often we see a family that needs help and we are powerless to help them.
The arts through culture program can only be offered if we get funding beyond the funding that we have per student. And yet I know, and I know everyone in the school would say that it is a key piece of what we are trying to do.
So it is a challenge; without a doubt, it is a challenge. It is also a challenge because we are a small school, and we are trying to offer what I believe these young people need. We are trying to offer programming that they would get in a large school, and we make choices accordingly.
The Chairman: I would like to thank you both very much.
This action plan for change shows exactly what Aboriginal people are doing in addressing the issues facing our youth in the urban centres.
The next presenters are Lewis Cardinal, and Donna Leask.
Senator Carney: I get the feeling that Alberta is more on top of these Aboriginal education issues than B.C. Is that your experience Madam Chair?
The Chairman: Yes. I think we can ask Mr. Cardinal and Donna that very question.
Senator Sibbeston: Saskatchewan is way ahead as well with respect to teacher training, law schools, and other educational issues.
Senator Carney: I only know my own province, so I wanted to establish that.
The Chairman: Welcome to these hearings. This is the last of our western trip. We have heard some really interesting things that are happening out in our communities, but we are also hearing about the barriers that exist. We have heard how Aboriginal people are addressing these and other issues and working in our communities to face the challenges that lie ahead. We have heard about successes and failures, and what the Aboriginal people are doing in spite of inadequate funding.
Ms Donna Leask, Supervisor, Aboriginal Education, Edmonton Public Schools: It is terrific to be able to be here this morning and share some information with you and perhaps some insights from an Edmonton Public Schools perspective. I am not sure you are aware how large our district is. Our district has 208 schools. We also have a very large Aboriginal student population.
Since 1995, when Edmonton public began to include the opportunity for Aboriginal kids and families to self- identify, our Aboriginal population has grown incrementally each year, so that as of September 30, 2002, we had almost 6,000 self-identified Aboriginal kids in our schools.
I estimate that we probably have about 2,000 other Aboriginal kids in our schools who, for whatever reason, have chosen not to self-identify. So generally speaking, it is my supposition that we have about a 10 per cent Aboriginal population in Edmonton public schools.
To date, Edmonton public has established four Aboriginal-specific programs: Prince Charles Awasis, which is an elementary school that has been in existence for almost 28 years; Sherbrooke Awasis Elementary/Junior High, which has been in existence for three and a half years; the Rites of Passage program, which is a junior high program for Aboriginal junior and high school age children at risk of not completing school; and now, of course, we have Amiskwaciy Academy, our high school.
In addition to that, as of September 30, 2002, 69 school locations in Edmonton public, including the above-noted programs, had self-identified Aboriginal populations of 10 per cent or higher, and in quite a few of them, the Aboriginal student population is between 20 per cent and 40 per cent. The Rites of Passage is a partnership program between Edmonton Public Schools and an Aboriginal agency, the Bent Arrow Traditional Healing Society.
Since 1983, many Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in the district and outside the district have been working in a variety of ways to try to improve our success rate at working with Aboriginal kids. Our Aboriginal kids have made some important gains at the elementary level on the provincial achievement tests. These gains, however, have not always been sustained through junior high and into high school.
Since 1997, when self-identified Aboriginal student rates began to be reported, it has become clear that, on average, only about 20 per cent of those Aboriginal kids entering grade 12 in September leave the following June with a high school diploma.
We have begun to make some important gains at the junior high level. We have also begun to make some important gains at the high school level, but our graduation rate continues to be somewhat disappointingly low.
What are the issues or the factors that have been identified as barriers to our Aboriginal success? In part it could be the continued negative impacts of the residential school on either Aboriginal parents or grandparents or caregivers in terms of their attitudes or trust towards education and towards schools. Parents and grandparents experienced the limited inclusion in provincial curricula of Aboriginal history from an Aboriginal perspective and of current Aboriginal issues, although this certainly has been eased somewhat by the introduction of Aboriginal Studies 10, 20, 30, which is now provincial curriculum in Alberta.
Another barrier has been the continued lack of knowledge of many educators about Aboriginal peoples, and of course, we are doing things to address each one of these issues. We have a continued need for schools to access more recent, current and culturally appropriate Aboriginal resources.
We deal with the barrier of racism and continued marginalization of many Aboriginal children, youth and families through loss of education, language and sometimes disconnection from their own culture.
The broad impact of poverty is another barrier to Aboriginal success in our schools. It is involved in and around issues of homelessness and unstable housing and, therefore, the ability of Aboriginal kids to be in school on a regular basis.
In Edmonton public, we do have a number of initiatives to address these and other issues. We have trustee commitment to our priorities to strengthen Aboriginal programming. The significance of that is that any statement on our priority page in Edmonton public means it is policy. Aboriginal education has a very high profile in our district right from the trustees on down.
My role is to provide a leadership role within Edmonton public. I am a supervisor for Aboriginal education, so that means that I work with the superintendent, trustees, administration, principals, and teachers. I supervise Aboriginal liaisons that go out to schools and provide various supports and services as requested by the schools. In the last year, my staff and I have made almost 1,000 home visits, 400 class presentations connected to curriculum, over 300 student support visits, and well over 900 teacher consultations.
I facilitate the ongoing provision of Aboriginal awareness training for teachers and administrators so that we can create a broad base of knowledge and awareness of Aboriginal history, attitudes, values, and approaches to learning.
I also work with a group of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal teachers and liaisons and internal and external library resource consultants to continue to develop what we call our ``Aboriginal resource collection.'' We feel it is very important to have the very best Aboriginal resources in our schools. The work that we do in creating the resource collection is meant to provide direct support to teachers in order to encourage them to include more Aboriginal resources in their curriculum.
I also facilitate a district Aboriginal education advisory committee, which includes community members, elders, and Aboriginal youth. The community members are sometimes parents or grandparents who have children in the school. We have plans in the upcoming year to invite even more Aboriginal parents to participate in this advisory committee.
Another of our initiatives is to continue to support and lead the development of resources, to support the new kindergarten to grade 12 Cree language and culture curriculum framework, which we developed in Edmonton public on a contract for Alberta Learning Information Service.
ALIS is a very important project to me and to Edmonton public generally, because we know that one of the issues for many Aboriginal people has been the loss of their language and the lack of access to their language within public education. Through the development of the curriculum in the first place, and now in the work to develop the resources to support the curriculum, we are providing increased opportunity and access for Cree to be offered in many of our schools.
I work to continue to support the Rites of Passage program. I am the liaison between the Aboriginal agency and the school district. Partnerships are sometimes very difficult and messy, and sometimes there are a lot of intricacies that just have to be worked through.
I also do my liaison work with the City Centre Education Project, providing a variety of services and supports, including kindergarten home visits, a Cree language option for junior high, activities that are Aboriginal based during their summer programming, and proposal development.
I also continue to chair a district principal committee on Aboriginal issues and planning. I know I am running out of time, and I will abridge the last of my comments.
I am working with a group of district staff, my Aboriginal education advisory committee and my principal committee to develop a 20-year Aboriginal achievement strategy framework. We are exploring and examining effective programs and strategies to improve and support Aboriginal achievement, and we are continuing the work to pilot, monitor, and adapt strategies shown to be effective in working with Aboriginal kids. We are investigating and collecting best practices both internally and externally.
I have passed out two brochures. One brochure describes the services provided by my Aboriginal education unit and, more specifically, the work of the Aboriginal liaisons that are under my supervision. I also provide training to principals and other senior administration people. I provide training, Aboriginal awareness training to new teachers, and to principals in training.
I also continue to work in the area of FAS. I have been a presenter around that issue in a whole host of communities throughout Alberta for the last several years, and, in fact, have just received two invitations from communities around Edmonton to do a presentation on FAS in the Aboriginal community.
We must continue to have high expectations. I think for too long it was too easy for a lot of people not to have high expectations of Aboriginal school kids.
I promise, what I call ``principles for action'': build on a foundation of trust, honour our histories, observe our cultural protocols, develop healthy relationships, develop healthy partnerships, promote champions, invest for the long-term, and sustain commitment.
Thank you very much for the opportunity to speak today.
Mr. Lewis Cardinal, Director and Coordinator of Native Student Services, University of Alberta: I would like to acknowledge the elders that are in the room today and thank them for coming here to listen to us educators and share with you some of our ideas.
To my left is Brenda Jones-Smith. She is the coordinator of the flagship program of the Office of Native Student Services. I am from the Sucker Creek Cree First Nation. I prefer to call myself a Woodland Cree rather than Bush Cree, considering the Middle East situation right now.
I have grown up in Edmonton for most of my life, since I was ten years old. Education has been a very large part of my life since I can remember.
Being, perhaps, one of the few students in the Catholic school system at the time, I guess I was brought into the University of Alberta as young as ten to have my brain picked over about my experiences in education. The poetic justice is that now I am working in the university and working on a Ph.D. in education.
I am the director and coordinator of the Office of Native Student Services. The University of Alberta has just over 1,000 Aboriginal students. In 1975 there were 17 identified Aboriginal students at the university. Our leaders at the time, Senator Chalifoux being one of them, had requested from the university a place and a way in which Aboriginal people could become successful learners and students. We have been around for 28 years now.
I do bring a message of promise, and also a sincere message of cooperation. The Office of Native Student Services has a vision statement, and it reads thus:
NSS honours the Indigenous worldview of education as a continuous ceremony of learning by respecting and supporting the voices and spirit of our community at the University of Alberta.
The mission statement reads:
To help the University of Alberta provide an environment that encourages full access, participation, and success for Aboriginal students as outlined in the university's 1991 Aboriginal student policy.
The University of Alberta was one of the first universities in Canada to develop a broad Aboriginal student policy. That student policy is the mandate of the Office of Native Student Services.
My office has the responsibility of working to support the Aboriginal communities on and off campus. At native student services, we see education as a ceremony, and the previous speakers had identified that concept. We know that education is something that is very special and sacred to our people.
Some of our elders have referred to education as our buffalo of today. Our buffalo, when we utilized it as the mainstay of our existence, was more than just sustenance; it was spiritual, emotional, and intellectual.
Native student services is based on this concept of education as a ceremony and the workers within the Office of Native Student Services as ceremony helpers. We are based on the foundation of an indigenous governance structure. The ``circle,'' or the tradition of the clan and council system, and the ``four elements of the being,'' or the holistic foundation, is how we develop programs and services for our Aboriginal community at the university.
We firmly believe that the process is the product itself. We strive to create an environment that is reflective of indigenous traditions, culture, and languages within the environment of cultural reflectivity. We feel that by doing these things our students will become more successful.
We have identified four specific areas within our responsibilities: retention, services, and strategies; community relations and recruitment; administration support; and our transition year program.
What do we do with the students while they are at the University of Alberta in order to create that sense of community and belonging?
The number one reason why university students drop out is because they feel they do not belong; there is no cultural reflectivity. That is a very important component of our retention services and strategies. We still are not meeting the target of our graduation rates, our retention rates, or our enrolment rates for the University of Alberta.
We provide an Aboriginal student-housing program that is a unique program in Canada. We have our own units, one of which is immediately off campus. It is called ``Metis House.'' It houses seven Aboriginal students.
We have a resident Aboriginal coordinator who represents our office. The Metis House also utilizes a circle governance structure to work together to build consensus on the way the house is run and how new students are factored in.
We have ``Northern House'' that is a four-bedroom home for northern students from the Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut.
We also provide orientation and graduation ceremonies to our students every year. We have a round dance. It is called ``flying moon round dance.'' This dance is very symbolic and is performed at the time of year when the birds leave their nest. The dance is performed when are students leave their communities and begin their journey at the university.
We support a number of cultural access programs and events. Last year we celebrated National Aboriginal Day at the quad with a display of the many different aspects of our music and culture, and it was well attended by our community.
A lot of our services are not only for the university community, and we have an obligation and a commitment to the communities off campus and in the surrounding area.
We have an on-line newsletter that is called the Moose Call that goes out to several thousand people. That publication updates academic deadlines, scholarships, opportunities at the university, as well as other items of interest. It is really a very in-depth newsletter.
We coordinate and collect Aboriginal accessible scholarships and bursaries and awards. Then we published the handbook that you have. Unfortunately, we do not receive funding for the handbook, so we have to sell advertisement space in order for that to happen. We produce over a thousand of those every year and hand them out for free to the students.
We also do counselling and agency referrals. We do a lot of Aboriginal awareness training, not only for faculties and individuals, but also off campus as well. There is a great need and a yearning to understand the subtleties and complexities of the Aboriginal condition today.
Our community relations and recruitment program has two unique programs that we are really proud of; both are funded by Canadian Heritage and UMAYC dollars. One of our programs is called ``Student Ambassadors Guiding Education,'' SAGE. ``SAGErs'' are the individuals that are ambassadors. That program represents our external recruitment drive. We train Aboriginal students from the university to go out into areas where the university usually does not recruit; they do presentations in First Nations schools and Metis settlements. We go to powwows, and Aboriginal gatherings, and we talk with students and non-Aboriginal people as well to let them know what opportunities are available for them and that they can be successful.
We just finished a big push in the north, and we calculated that we have had interactions with over 5,000 Aboriginal students. It is a successful program. It is a program that provides an opportunity for our students to do something to give back to their communities.
The other program is called ``Wahpahtihew,'' which in Cree means: ``they show something to them.'' It is a unique program. We have Aboriginal students that we select from the university and we also invite other post-secondary institutions to provide tutoring to the Edmonton Public Schools and the Catholic school system as well. We are plugged into both those school systems where our students work as assistants to teachers and as tutors to the students. In essence the work they do becomes a role model for the students. You know that our Aboriginal community is short on role models. Our students act as role models and give the children the opportunity to access education. They encourage the children to continue their education, and act as recruiters as well. They encourage the students to go to post-secondary school and realize a dream. That is our constant message.
We also do personalized campus tours for Aboriginal groups that come from out of province. They stop at our office, and our SAGErs will take them out. If they are interested in medicine, they will take them out to medicine, introduce them to doctors and Ph.D.s and other students to let them have a hands-on experience while they are here.
We also host a number of international and indigenous groups, Maoris, Mapuche and native Hawaiians. We provide a resource out into the wider Aboriginal community for these groups to come and have a cultural exchange with our people and also facilitate that exchange back to their communities.
For administration supports, we include fax and telephone and meeting spaces for Aboriginal students and community members. We have student group mentorship. We help to develop their capacity at leadership at the university. We have a computer lab that we have cobbled together with eight computers. We have a ceremonial room so Aboriginal students can enter, and there is sage, sweet grass, and other things, even Hawaiian sea salt and earth for some of our Hawaiian students. We have a small reference library and a study space.
Now I would like to ask Brenda to talk a bit about the transition year program, please.
Ms Brenda Jones-Smith, Coordinator, Native Student Services, University of Alberta: I am from Serpent River First Nation in Ontario. I am the coordinator of the transition year program. The transition year program has grown from when Mr. Cardinal started it; there were five students in the original program. Our intake for September 2004 is planned to be 100 students. The applications that come through our program, unfortunately, are larger than that; we receive anywhere from 200 to 250 applications each year. What we found with the transition year program is that we still have Aboriginal students not getting the courses that they require to come to the university.
This year we are starting a brand-new initiative, the Centre for Aboriginal Student Access, or CASA for short. We are talking a big leap, and we are starting an upgrading program for students that do not have the required 30-level matriculated subjects to enter university. We will put them into an upgrading program that will get them ready for university within one year.
The transition year program acts as an access program for eight to nine faculties. There are approximately 25 routes they can take to get into university. What makes us different from other programs is that our students are not required to have all the five matriculated subjects, but I also have to stress that we have also made changes to the program.
Our program is not a remedial program, and it is not a back door to the university. We set the bar very high for the students. It just means that they are deficient in one or two courses. The majority of our students enter into the arts and native studies routes, and if they are deficient in their language, their language 30, or if they are going into the sciences, they are deficient in their math route, the math 30s. So what we do is we offer them that alternative to come into our program, and then we find a program that suits them, a route, and then they take three undergraduate courses, plus a course that we have designed called university 101, 102, which is offered out of the agriculture and forestry faculty for two credits. It is a university life skills course, and it is based on how a university student survives at the university level. The course includes everything from writing skills, reading skills, time management, and budgets.
In the second term we do a lot of program planning, so that when the students leave our program in April they will have the next four or five years of their lives mapped out. Our goal is to bring the students into the university and to keep them in the university as well.
We also are working now with two other organizations in the city on a project called the ``Carrington House,'' and that is where our upgrading program will be. We also work with the Boys and Girls Club and other societies. We also have a housing program developed out of there with over 40 units for our students to come and stay, including seven units for single moms with children.
We have developed an instructor's assistance program. All of our students are required to take tutorials with their courses, and they have an instructor's assistant that goes to the class with them and then has a one-hour recitation after the class, and then they also have walk-in times as well. We have quite an extensive tutoring program within our program.
Mr. Cardinal: The university does not fund our service program. We are given around $25,000 to operate everything that we have. We have funded four positions, the rest of the three positions we have leveraged from endowments and other self-funding dollars. We are largely a self-funded organization.
This year the University of Alberta is reducing its budget by 2.2 per cent, so there will be amalgamations of programs and amalgamations of services. We, however, are not falling under that, because we have nothing to amalgamate and nothing to cut. We have been working with the various agencies out in the communities, and that is where we have developed our funds.
There is a fee of $1,000 for the transition year program. That is something we do not agree with, but it is a necessity for survival. It is either that or we do not have the program. It is from those fees that we hire an administration assistant to support Brenda, and to keep the IA program afloat. We have to go hunting every year to secure funds for the following year. We do not have a continued hard funding base to deliver from, whereas the School of Native Studies has its fee-recovery system through tuitions; we do not have that luxury.
We have done a lot in response to the community in terms of meeting their needs. While there is a large push for education there seems to be a political will there. However, we need support in transition and student supports in a big way.
According to our own studies we have found that the more financial support we give to support services like tutorials and instructors, the higher the success rate. However, when it comes to survival those support services are often the first services to go. Then the numbers go back down.
We have generated a number of records over the last three years. Last year, we had an increase of enrolment or applications to 550; of that figure, 225 were accepted. That was the largest incoming class ever. Last year we graduated 152 Aboriginal students, which is our largest graduation number. So we see the rise in the need is there. We need to be able to work together with our partners.
A communication strategy and protocol in the form of talking circles should be created with all levels of governments, aboriginal communities, and educational institutions. We do not need to develop policies; we already have policies in place. We have that type of political will already sitting there, but it is not reaching the people who need it, who can use it, and the youth who will benefit from it. I think a coordination to work towards that common ground through protocol will be something that will be beneficial for everyone.
Senator Carney: I see that generally the programs that are the most successful are the ones that are not funded.
All of the witness has related the mismatch between funding and success. We should really adjust that problem.
Why is there so much money being spent while people are running successful programs with very little or no funding?
We have heard example after example of successful programs, one even being run at lunch hours, as we heard in Vancouver. I do not understand. Obviously, there is some relation between lack of money and success, and I think we better take a look at that.
Do you have students on your education advisory councils?
Ms Leask: Yes, we have two from two high schools, one of which is Amiskwaciy.
Senator Carney: Is the transition year the first year of university?
Ms Jones-Smith: Yes, it is.
Senator Carney: Can you tell me a little bit more about it? Who pays the $1,000 fees?
Ms Jones-Smith: The students pay the fee through their band funding, or the student finance board.
Senator Carney: Why are you not funded? There are all sorts of student services that are funded. So why, Mr. Cardinal, is your work not funded, since you are producing students?
Mr. Cardinal: That is a good question. That is a question I pose to our superiors every year. I believe that there are misconceptions at university level as to why they should support a specific Aboriginal-based program. I think that has a lot to do with Aboriginal awareness training.
I do not know why. I really cannot answer that for you. I think the president and vice-president academic of the University of Alberta could perhaps answer that question.
Senator Carney: If you are graduating 152 Aboriginal students this year, there must be some connection between that figure and the native support services. I would like to know the answer even if we have to write to them.
Ms Jones-Smith, I do not understand the information you gave us concerning students not meeting the matriculation levels. Do they never catch up, or is it a separately designed program? Is it a back door?
Ms Jones-Smith: To go into the arts faculty, you are required to have five matriculated subjects: english 30, social 30, math or french 30, and then biology and another science 30. In most of our communities, the students are not getting the math 30. They are getting the english 30, some of them. They are not getting the language 30. If they do, they get Cree 30, but Alberta Learning does not recognize it as a 30 level course. So they are coming to us with basically english and social.
Senator Carney: Why is the system producing english and social students?
Ms Jones-Smith: That is another good question. Sometimes I feel like I am their last hope, so I bring them in and I sit them down, and we find the best possible route for them.
I am graduating my seventh group this year. I have seen many of them come in with the deficiencies. There is some streamlining going on in the school system at an early level. It happened to myself in grade 7. I was doing very well in math, and then when I go to junior high, suddenly I was in the remedial math class.
Senator Carney: So there is pre-streaming before the university?
Mr. Cardinal: Yes. We had an issue with some of the northern schools that feed our university, and we have had this debate with the student advisors in those areas.
Senator Carney: Is that because they feel that no Aboriginal student goes on to a post-secondary education?
Ms Jones-Smith: They go to NAIT or somewhere else. When they show up on our doorstep I have to find another route for them. That means they must make up their grades to get into university.
Senator Carney: How do you do that? How do you do another year?
Ms Jones-Smith: Well, this year, we are going to bring them through our upgrading program, but previously, I would put them through to Concordia, NorQuest, or any of the upgrading metro community colleges.
Last year I had a student with seven 31-level courses. He was out by 2 per cent of the average to get in. He had 74 per cent and the requirement was 76 per cent. This year the new average is 80 per cent.
Senator Carney: That is the entry level?
Ms Jones-Smith: In our community, if you send them away and do not let them in, they are not going to come back. So what we did, we brought him through our program. He did not need our program.
Senator Carney: You are going too fast. You said: ``In our community, if you send them away, they will not come back.
Ms Jones-Smith: I will take them in my program. A 74 per cent average in sciences, and seven 30-level subjects, and I brought him in. He does not need our program. He has got all 8s and 9s. He is ready to go into engineering. He is set. However, he was the type of student that would not have tried a second time to get into university and probably would have taken pre-technical or the pre-engineering at NAIT.
Senator Carney: So you really are a channel in for them to get the upgrading that they need to get to the matriculation levels. It is not that you are going to graduate dentists who are deficient?
Ms Jones-Smith: No. They will not go into a faculty unless they have the required subjects set out by contract by the faculty.
Senator Carney: You are upgrading the students to the faculty entry requirements?
Ms Jones-Smith: Yes.
Senator Carney: I wanted to make that clear.
Ms Jones-Smith: We would not do that. It would not be fair to the university or to the students themselves.
Senator Carney: Are students responding well to that?
Ms Jones-Smith: Yes, they are.
Senator Carney: Is there a direct relationship between the increase in graduates and your increased intakes?
Ms Jones-Smith: I would say about two-thirds of the graduates from last term were from the TYP program.
Senator Carney: That is wonderful.
Senator Pearson: Ms Leask I am very encouraged by the broadness of the approach that is being taken. Are you bringing in students from other cultures?
Ms Leask: Yes.
Senator Pearson: We have been thinking that the best practices that your programs are producing can be shared with others.
Do you have a lot of Chinese students? Are there issues there?
I am not sure quite how to pose the question. Is there a problem when there are certain efforts being made that are totally necessary, and are there other communities that are showing some distress at the fact that they do not have the same kind of special school for them, or is that not a problem here?
Ms Leask: Edmonton is a very culturally diverse community. Part of the work that I do when I am working with teachers or with other district people is to repeatedly tell them that Aboriginal peoples are not to be counted as an ethnic minority. Ethnic minorities are a wonderful addition to our community, but they chose Canada as their new home. We are the First Peoples, and this has always been our home, so we are not an ethnic minority.
I have not detected any resentment by any other cultural group about the emphasis in Edmonton public about Aboriginal education. When I joined the district in 1998, and previous to that was in adult education for 21 years, I think there was some early concern in the district that other groups might be upset. The district has held fast to their decision.
Senator Pearson: That is good news. That is helpful. Some of these questions that we ask you are partly because we want certain items to be on the record, and it is not because we did not think that might be the way things were. So that is really why we ask the question.
I agree that the Aboriginal peoples are not an ethnic or cultural minority.
Do you have a francophone board here, or how does that work in Edmonton? I know you have some French- language schools.
Ms Leask: We have bilingual programs in about 11 different languages. We have them in French, Ukrainian, Mandarin, Arabic, Hebrew, Spanish, German, and I know I am forgetting a few of them, but we really do offer quite a few bilingual programs in other languages.
Senator Pearson: I am not thinking of the bilingual programs. I am thinking of the French-language program.
Ms Leask: I wish our director of curriculum were here this morning, because he could answer this question far better than I can. He has worked very hard to secure a lot of federal government assistance in improving the French-language program within the Edmonton public schools.
Senator Pearson: Are any of your Aboriginal students French-language students.
Ms Leask: That is quite possible, yes.
Senator Pearson: How are the programs working for them?
Ms Leask: I really could not answer that at this time, not with any definite, specific data, but I would guess that there are Aboriginal kids in French-immersion programs.
Senator Pearson: I am not talking about immersion. I am talking about the French, the constitutionally required French-language schools. I think it is important that we recognize their needs as well, and I would be interested if there is some outreach to support those students.
We have about 208 schools in our district, and my liaisons regularly provide assistance to about 70 schools, and other schools on just an as-required basis. So they are in contact with many thousands of kids every year. Of course, when they do class presentations, they are not only reaching the Aboriginal kids in the classroom. They are also reaching the non-Aboriginal kids and perhaps the non-Aboriginal teacher as well.
Senator Pearson: You were saying that somebody else could have perhaps have answered that question, the question about how many Aboriginal children are in French language.
Ms Leask: Yes, our director of curriculum.
Senator Pearson: Perhaps we can follow that up as a request, because I think it is an important question, and there is a French component in Alberta.
Ms Leask: More and more what we are hearing in our district is a request by Aboriginal parents to have Cree more accessible to their kids. In fact, I had a call from an Aboriginal parent this year, and this is the first call of this nature that I had. We have a program in Edmonton public for very bright children called ``Academic Challenge.'' An Aboriginal parent called and wanted to know why we did not offer Cree at Academic Challenge. I did a silent hurrah when I got that parental question. Aboriginal parents are requesting more and more that Cree be accessible in our schools, and we are trying to expand Cree in the district.
Senator Pearson: Are you aware, Mr. Cardinal, of any Aboriginal students who come from a French-language background?
Mr. Cardinal: Well, actually, I will turn that question over to Brenda. Just very generally, yes. We have responded to that need.
Ms Jones-Smith: I think it is 21 Aboriginal students that are studying at Faculté Saint-Jean. The TYP program offers routes for students if they want to study in the French language, so they can do the TYP transition year at Faculté Saint-Jean as well.
Senator Pearson: That is good news. Hopefully, maybe some of this new funding that was announced a couple of weeks ago might be something you can tap into when you are looking for more money.
Mr. Cardinal: One of the problems that we have with the funding issue for student support services is that we are not an academic unit, and so we have difficulties in applying for these funds. Oftentimes faculties and other departments associated with the faculties make the application, but they do so without consultation or the involvement of the Aboriginal community. That is why we have always called for a dialogue, because we can help, we can augment, and we can legitimate their request for that type of funding.
Senator Pearson: That is interesting. Thank you.
Senator Carney: My issue was not facetious when I said some of the best programs referred are not funded. I was thinking of Mr. Bates' program in Vancouver, and I was thinking of the gang intervention last night. However, some of them are. Donna Leask's program is very innovative and is funded.
Obviously, if you are on the cutting edge, nobody wants to fund you, because they want to see what happens. How can people doing innovative things get funded?
Ms Leask: That is a complicated question, because we are funded, but we are also underfunded at the same time. Edmonton public, like other Alberta school jurisdictions with a significant Aboriginal population, receives the First Nations, Metis, and Inuit education allocation grants. Those grant amounts are based on population, but the population formula for those allocation grants does not go above 2,000 students. Edmonton public has three times that many Aboriginal students. So it is our feeling that we are quite under-funded from that allocation aspect. Edmonton public has made a very deliberate choice to support Aboriginal education itself as a district.
Senator Carney: In Vancouver a bureaucrat from human resources was in the audience, and her job was to listen to the people who were appearing before us and to try to integrate all these various programs into some sort of streamlined program. Obviously, some attempt is being made to do this. Are you suggesting that as a community, we should look at or tell the government to look at some of these structural in-house barriers and remove them?
Ms Leask: Well, perhaps a gentler way to say it is that there needs to be more intergovernmental cooperation on several levels.
Senator Carney: You are being very diplomatic.
Ms Leask: I am.
Senator Carney: They will just have more conferences on what intergovernmental cooperation limits are. Is it a problem that the programs that are designed at institutional levels are not reflective of the need? Is that a fair statement? You cannot record nodding heads. You have to say something. We have all these people coming to us and saying: ``We have this budget.''
Mr. Cardinal: That is exactly what I mean. With the political bill, it seems to be there on paper, but the intent and the spirit behind that is not being connected with programs and the creativity of these programs that are out there like our own.
Senator Carney: So what can we do about it? We are talking hundreds of millions of dollars. In Vancouver we heard about a wonderful program that needed only $15,000 to $20,000. We are not talking huge amounts of money here. What is your overall budget Mr. Cardinal?
Mr. Cardinal: Our overall budget is nearly $600,000, of which $245,000 is funded through the university. That includes positions. So over half of what we get has to come from other places. That means beating the bushes for endowments and then using that as leverage. A lot of our work has been based on the art of leverage. It is a necessary evil.
Senator Carney: It is not necessarily bad. Sometimes it is good that you have to do that. I am just wondering how we can make the system more flexible so there is more flexibility in the various funding systems. Is anyone doing anything about the population formula limit of 2,000? Do you write letters?
Ms Leask: Yes.
Senator Carney: Good. We will write letters too.
Ms Leask: We really work a lot with quite a few community agencies, Aboriginal agencies in particular, who we welcome into our schools to provide a variety of supports and services. That is happening more and more, and I think that that certainly is a way to go. I think educators really need to realize that we cannot do it all by ourselves. We really do need to work together as a whole community.
Senator Carney: When you say ``we,'' you mean Aboriginals cannot do it all.
Ms Leask: No. I mean school systems cannot do it all by themselves, no matter what group of children they are working with. So we work with a number of Aboriginal agencies in our district.
Senator Carney: I think you are doing marvellous work, and if there is any way that we can help you, you know where to find the chair.
Ms Leask: Yes, we do.
Senator Carney: Our action plan that she has pioneered and has pushed ahead is aimed at identifying some of these barriers and saying they must be dealt with, because there is lot of money out there. People say that there is not money. There is a lot of money out there, and the question is: Is it being used in the best practices? Is it being used in the best way?
I am really impressed with the progress being made here in Alberta and the retention levels, the graduation levels, and the general awareness of the program. I do not get that feeling in British Columbia. I think that it is an eye-opener for me to see how much is being accomplished here. I congratulate you all. If you have any further thoughts, do let us know.
The Chairman: Well, I would like to thank the three of you very, very much. The issues you have discussed have been enlightening, and especially the issues facing our university programs and students. They are important. It is just too bad that our voices are not heard. We are going to shout loud and clear.
The committee adjourned.