What Canadian educators can do to support aboriginal kids

A Concordia researcher learns from students in a series of community-driven school perseverance initiatives
December 10, 2014
By Cléa Desjardins


Urging young people to stay in school may seem like the obvious solution to high dropout rates. But what if the school system is part of the problem?

In classrooms across Canada, the odds are against aboriginal children. The First Nations Regional Health Survey shows 39.9 per cent of First Nations adults have less than a high school education. That’s compared with 24 per cent for the Canadian population at large.

But according to new research by Natasha Blanchet-Cohen, an assistant professor in Concordia’s Department of Applied Human Sciences, those numbers could change.

Over the past year, she has been tracking the results of a project aimed at improving school perseverance for aboriginal youth. Managed by the Centre de transfert pour la réussite éducative du Québec (CTREQ) and funded by Réunir Réussir, the project gives financial support for the development of community-driven initiatives that support youth education.

“We’re only in the pilot phase, but I’m already seeing encouraging results,” says Blanchet-Cohen. She has just returned from a workshop in the Huron-Wendat community of Wendake, where she shared her findings with participants and key actors in the field of aboriginal education.

Renée Pinard, transfer and innovation counsellor at CTREQ, confirms the project’s success: “It's been a real privilege to work with Madame Blanchet-Cohen, as well as all the Concordia students who took part in her research and helped organize the workshop. Without them we could never have done it.”

In total, 19 communities from eight First Nations took part. They developed 22 separate projects including youth leadership, communal libraries, youth entrepreneurship programs, and music lessons for composing songs in their native language. Although no two initiatives were identical, a common thread emerged: the importance of recognizing and integrating culture.

“Aboriginal students often wonder ‘Where am I in this?’” says Blanchet-Cohen.

“The kids are saying they don’t stay in school because they don’t feel they belong. To counter that, educators need to develop activities targeted at making connections rather than keeping school in a silo separate from the home and the community at large. Those connections help children feel they belong, and they have a voice.”

Overcoming the lasting legacy of Canada’s residential schools, where education was a tool for assimilation, is no easy task. “Education can’t be something being done to them, it needs to be done for and with them, by people who understand their needs and their life experiences,” says Blanchet-Cohen.

Ultimately, this program proves that a sole emphasis on reading, writing and arithmetic is not ideal. “A curriculum focused on core subjects just doesn’t work. It’s really about figuring out ‘what is education?’ and recognizing the other factors that contribute to learning. For First Nations youth, that means valuing culture, acknowledging history and involving family.”

Blanchet-Cohen has involved several Concordia students in the project. Graduate student Kristy Franks is one of them — she relished the hands-on approach afforded by the research project.

Last summer, Franks made a site visit to a literacy camp in the Cree community of Wemindji.

“It was so interesting to be able to talk to these young students and their parents, and find out how the camp benefits the kids,” she says. “It’s just amazing to see the dedicated people working on these projects who, despite countless challenges, give 1,000 per cent on a daily basis to help kids better focus on their personal and collective learning paths.”

Dolores Prevost, another student who participated in the research, also learned a lot from the experience: “I have learned the important skill of being present while listening. Conducting interviews gave me the opportunity to apply the theory learned in my coursework.”

Blanchet-Cohen hopes to expand these experiences in the field to students in Concordia’s new Graduate Diploma in Youth Work through the department of Applied Human Sciences.

“School retention issues are only increasing and professionals with a background in youth work are in high demand,” she says. “This type of research both informs my teaching and will allow future students to be part of a project that could really turn around learning for aboriginal students in Canada.”

Learn more about Concordia’s Graduate Diploma in Youth Work. Applications are open through March. 

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