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Aboriginal Education: Past and Present

The First Nations had an organized education system that the Europeans could not identify. The introduction of residential schools led to the decline of the Aboriginal culture. The present education options available to children of First Nations descent is also discussed.

Aboriginal Education

            Education is the life-long learning experience for survival. It is the teaching of knowledge, tradition, culture, beliefs, and values. In the past, the First Nations had a structured educational system for the children, but it was not recognized by the Europeans. When the Europeans came from the east, they regarded the First Nations people as inferior savages. In order to “save” these people, they established residential schools to assimilate the children, who were people of the future.  Since then, residential schools have had a negative impact on these children. Today, better options for education are offered to those with First Nations ancestry, each with its own advantages and disadvantages.

            The Aboriginal people had their own education system that taught children about their culture and knowledge for survival. Although they didn’t have a written language, they were able to pass on their history and identity through oral stories. The Loon’s Necklace is an example of a west coast legend that taught the children about their beliefs. Also, the organized system covered the necessary skills of survival, which included hunting, transportation, health, religion, politics, and laws. For example, since the First Nations were conservationists, the children were taught how to use all the parts of a buffalo.  The Europeans could not identify the effective educational system that was already present in the Aboriginal society.

            Motivated by the belief that they were superior, the federal government established residential schools in the 19th century, because it was easier to start with children. The schools were operated by the Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian and United churches. The goal of the residential schools was to assimilate the natives, have them undergo ethnic cleansing and convert them to Christianity. Taken from parents at the age of 6, by an Indian agent, the children were forced to abandon traditional ways, which included speaking in their own language. If they disobeyed, the children suffered physical punishment, emotional abuse, and even sexual abuse. Many children died of illnesses such as tuberculosis, measles and typhoid. The schools were completely isolated from the rest of society, which made it difficult for them to run away.

Once the children were released at 16, they could either return to the reserve or live with the Europeans. If they went back to the reserve, they could not fit back in with the First Nations. Racism and discrimination were problems that they would encounter if they chose to live with the Europeans. They belonged nowhere and the depression led them to substance abuse.  The survivors of these schools have tried to heal by: contacting the government for aid, counselling, and educating others. Fortunately, the schools no longer exist and Aboriginal children have several choices for education.

The present options for children with First Nations ancestry are a big improvement from the residential schools. One option is the public school system, which anyone can attend. These schools are multicultural and part of the mainstream society but they lack in cultural education and some students may be subjected to racism. Reserve schools are another option. The advantages of these schools include living in their own community while still following the provincial curriculum. However, it is difficult to find staffing and the children are isolated from the rest of society. The quality is not always up to par; students end up struggling in university. The third option is public aboriginal schools, like Children of the Earth, located in the North End of Winnipeg. These schools are located in urban areas and anyone can attend them. They incorporate cultural identity into the regular curriculum. The disadvantage is that these schools are not seen as a permanent institution, more like a catch up tool to revive the Aboriginal identity. Lastly, private schools are also available as an option if the parents can afford them. Aboriginal private schools isolate students from other cultures, which can be a disadvantage. All of the choices available to Aboriginal children are trying to address the needs of the student.

Education is important to everyone because it provides you with the skills to be successful in life. Initially, the First Nations had an orderly educational system, but the Europeans demolished it and introduced residential schools. Its harmful impact is still present in society today. Hopefully, with the better education options today, the First Nations people can integrate into the main stream society without losing their own culture. With progress already being made, the future looks promising for these children.

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