Sometimes moving toward a better life can be a serious struggle for Aboriginal families.

Imagine leaving your home, your friends, your family and your culture and moving to a new place with strange faces, a strange language, strange customs and a whole new set of rules to follow.

That is a common immigrant experience, but most of us don’t realize that it is also the experience of many Aboriginal families when they move off reserves.

Education is often the motivating factor for moving. A 2004 study from Indian and Northern Affairs Canada reported that on-reserve Aboriginal children were at least two years behind non-Aboriginal children in any given grade. Also, dropout rates are exceedingly high. Right now, about 60 percent of Aboriginal kids living on reserves do not graduate high school.
Michael Mendelson from the Caledon Institute of Social Policy was nothing short of scathing in his review of First Nations reserve schools in his report, Improving Education on Reserves: A First Nations Education Authority Act, released in the summer of 2008. “The present non-system of education for First Nations children living on reserves is failing, and the overall results for Canada show no improvement over the last decade. It is difficult to think of another issue that is so clearly a social and economic disaster in the making.”

So, many families either send their children away, or move the entire family, to the nearest urban centre to have access to better schools. This presents a whole host of new issues for these families as they try to forge a new life.

Access to Help:

Whether children get sent alone to the city school (and live with relatives or foster parents), or the whole family moves, there can sometimes be issues like extreme poverty, violence, neglect, addiction and poor health that need addressing in order for kids to be successful in school.

But getting help can be frustrating. Navigating the system is hard for everyone but it can especially daunting when you do not even know what is available to you.

“The problem is services have not been brought to the point where it’s one-stop shopping,” says Lynnita Jo Guillet, an Aboriginal education resource teacher for the Thunder Bay Catholic District School Board. “If you come from reserve and you haven’t caught buses and you haven’t made doctors appointments and you haven’t played within the system, you don’t know how to get that help for yourself.”

Community schools and parent outreach services are trying to combat the problem but there is still work to be done.

Culture Shock:

Another issue for families is the overwhelming differences between living on-reserve and living off-reserve. It can lead to culture shock and work to deepen the divide between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people.

“Nobody tells you that that’s not the way you do it in the city. There’s no rule book,” says Guillet. “If you know the rules, you can play by the rules but if nobody tells you the rules, all of the sudden you’re marginalized again and not belonging and not part of where you are. It’s very similar to an immigrant situation. The tragedy, of course, is these are sovereign people.”

Evelyn Pelletier, a child welfare worker at Dilico Anishinabek Family Care, works with families both on and off reserve. She believes that culture shock has led to misunderstanding which has led to racism. “It’s still out there and we know it’s still out there. Sometimes when we go out to restaurants or to a store you will feel that discrimination.”   

Crissy Wells, 26, is a mother of three living on the Fort William First Nation reserve in the outskirts of Thunder Bay. She went to high school off the reserve and always felt like an outsider among her peers.

“In high school and in junior high, there was so many students my age that always told us that their parents said we were no good,” she says. But Wells acknowledges that things are starting to change. Her own children, although still quite young, do not have the same experiences among their non-Native peers.

Guillet too believes the tide is changing—slowly. “It’s sad but it’s also hopeful because it’s being talked about. For a hundred years no one talked about it and in the last ten years, people have started to talk about it and address it. So things don’t change immediately but there’s hope.”

Education Brings Hope:

Part of that hope is due in part to an ongoing effort to bridge the gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students by celebrating Aboriginal culture at school. The Ontario Ministry of Education introduced a policy framework in 2007 that is meant to improve the literacy and numeracy skills and graduation rates of Aboriginal students. It also recognizes the importance of a curriculum that reflects First Nation, M├ętis and Inuit cultures.

“People say why are you having special programs for aboriginal students? Why isn’t there Finn or Italian, which are large populations also here in Thunder Bay?” says Guillet. “But you can go back to Italy and have Italian food and learn to speak Italian. If my culture goes, it’s gone forever. And we can’t let that happen.”

Guillet now works to bring culturally relevant resources into the classroom. She helped develop a cultural kit for classrooms, is developing art programs with a focus on literacy and is hoping to incorporate Native literature into the curriculum soon. 

Kids are now encouraged to learn more about their culture and, as a result, are starting to feel less like outsiders. Non-Aboriginal kids are also learning to embrace difference and celebrate diversity.

And for families taking that brave step toward a better life there is a renewed sense of hope.

For more on Aboriginal education and the issues that affect these families, check out the in-depth coverage on Your Voice.