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The Black Hole

A Quick review of the 2009 "The State of Aboriginal Learning in Canada" report

BY BETH | OCT 24 2011

I’ve been doing some work with the Aboriginal Health Program at my day job and it has reminded me of something that I’ve been meaning to blog about here: the rates of Aboriginal people in post-secondary education. Back when Dave and I were grad students and we were sitting around talking about “issues that face trainees” (i.e., those early discussions that originally spurred us on to start this blog), this was something we talked about. We’d heard about the low numbers of Aboriginal students enrolled in university from the Aboriginal Coordinator for some of the science-related faculties and when a group of us were sitting around talking about it we realized that, despite our fairly wide networks of grad students, none of us even knew of a single Aboriginal graduate student at our university.
The 2009 State of Aboriginal Learning in Canada report by the Canadian Council on Learning (CCL) provide some stats to back up our experiences:

  • People aged 20-24 without a high school diploma:
    • Aboriginal: 40%
    • Non-Aboriginal: 13%
  • People aged 25 to 64 who have completed a post-secondary certificate, diploma or degree:
    • Aboriginal: 41%
    • Non-Aboriginal: 56%
  • People aged 25 to 64 who have completed a university degree:
    • Aboriginal: 8%
      • First Nations people living on reserve: 4%
      • First Nations people living off reserve: 9%
      • Metis people: 9%
    • Non-Aboriginal: 23%

This report didn’t differentiate which type of degrees they were talking about (i.e., undergraduate vs. graduate), but since we know that only a minority of those who do an undergraduate degree will go on to graduate school, we can surmise that of those 8%, the majority will not have graduate degrees.

All of this paints a bleak picture, because we know that high school and post-secondary education are important both for the individuals who get them (in terms of being able to go onto further education and to get jobs) as well as for society (i.e., building a “knowledge economy”). When a portion of the population is so vastly unrepresented in the academic world, it’s not only unfair to the people who aren’t, for a variety of reasons, able to access education, but it also robs society of the benefits of all the ideas and great work that those minds could have contributed to the sciences and other areas of research.

To add another dimension to the discussion, let’s look at this stat (again from the CCL report):

  • “a 2005 EKOS survey of First Nations people living on-reserve found that 70% of young people aspire to purse higher education.”

That’s a pretty big disparity. 70% of Aboriginal youth living on reserve aspire to pursue high education, but only 41% of Aboriginal adults (on & off reserve ((The report doesn’t specify, so I’m assuming they mean on- and off-reserve)) have completed a post-secondary education and only 4% of First Nations adults living on reserve have a university education. The main reasons given, in that same EKOS survey, for not pursuing a post-secondary education were: “lack of money,” “lack of encouragement,” and “problems with alcohol, drugs or pregnancy.” A 2006 Statistics Canada survey reported the mains reasons for not pursuing a post-secondary education among Aboriginal youth people living off-reserve as: “they got a job or wanted to work,” “financial reasons,” and “family responsibilities other than caring for own child.”

However, this report did highlight that Aboriginal people tend to take a more holistic view of education, and thus understanding and assessing Aboriginal learning requires that we look at the many ways that Aboriginal people learn beyond just the formal education system. Learning is viewed as a lifelong process, from infancy to old age, and occurs in a variety of settings beyond the classroom, including in community, the home, the workplace and on the land). Some of the measures of these other components of learning paint a fuller picture:

  • Youth participating in social clubs or groups regularly:
    • Aboriginal: 31%
    • all youth: 21%
  • Youth participating in art or music activities:
    • Aboriginal: 37%
    • all youth: 27%
  • Youth participating in sports outside of school at least once per week:
    • Aboriginal: 70%
    • all youth: 71%
  • Learning from elders is a very important part of Aboriginal culture and “approximately four in 10 off-reserve Aboriginal youth interact with elders at least once a week (outside of school).”
  • “More than 41% of off-reserve Aboriginal children and 77% of Inuit children reported having someone in the community to help them understand their culture and history.”

So, while there are some less than encouraging stats on high school and university educational attainment among Aboriginal people in Canada, there is also evidence of a culture of, and a desire for, learning. Of course, all this begs the question of how can we get past those barriers to education? That, I think, will be the topic of my next blog posting!

Also, I’m very aware that I’m writing this posting as a white person. I’m interested to hear from Aboriginal people – those who have attained an education, those who have not, and those who aspire to. What do you think of the above data and what I’ve said about it? What are your thoughts on how we can help those who wish to attain a higher education to be able to do so?

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