The following is an open letter to the Honourable Paul Martin, who spoke in Fredericton on Aboriginal education on October 24 at a public conversation organized by the University of New Brunswick.
I greatly appreciate your recent willingness to speak publicly in Fredericton about Aboriginal education, and I appreciate the opportunity for the audience to ask questions. Since time for audience response was limited I did not feel that I could take more time to press my points, hence the reason for this open letter.
In my question I pointed out that education in the medium of the mother-tongue for indigenous children is not only the only effective means for maintaining a language and culture, as the Acadians of this province can attest, but also a means of improving academic performance. I also pointed out that since First Nations children do not have the option of education in their language there is no equality of education for First Nations children in New Brunswick compared to anglophones and francophones, and that this constitutes a violation of internationally recognized linguistic human rights. Finally, since you are such an advocate of advancing education for Aboriginal children, I asked if you would be willing to publicly support and promote Native language immersion education.
By responding that it is only First Nations schools that must teach Aboriginal languages and that equal funding for these schools would solve the problem, you have altogether missed the most important points in my question.
In the first place, I was not talking about “teaching” an Aboriginal language, but about teaching all subjects in the medium of an Aboriginal language, essentially immersion education.
Secondly, I was not speaking solely of First Nations as the parties responsible for reversing linguistic decline in First Nations, but of both federal and provincial governments which have an obligation to meet international linguistic rights standards vis-à-vis Indigenous Peoples. To expand on these points, it is not enough to say that you support and promote the teaching of Aboriginal languages and culture in the schools. As long as a school is conducted primarily in English or French, the colonial project of linguicide will continue since the teaching of Aboriginal languages in core programs is completely ineffective for creating speakers. Considering also that most of those teachers are already elders, every minute that they are employed in ineffective core programs ensures that Indigenous languages will continue to decline. As I pointed out the Maliseet language may have barely five years of viability left unless something different is done very soon. Indeed, only three of some 60 languages indigenous to Canada are forecast to survive to the end of this century unless something very different is done soon. The reality is that as long as young Aboriginal people are forced to attend schools conducted only in English or French, even those with Aboriginal language programs, the destruction of our languages will continue just as effectively, and maybe even more so, than it did in residential schools. And it will not be either a natural decline or a natural death.
As for the long-term effect of education in the medium of English or French for indigenous children, research from around the world is now demonstrating that while there are other factors, such as poverty, the imposition of a dominant language as the medium of instruction is now understood to be a primary factor in the low school completion rates (high push-out rates) for these children.
In Canada where there is no government support for immersion schools in First Nations languages, the average school completion rate for Aboriginal children has hovered stubbornly at 50 per cent for nearly two decades, in spite of all kinds of remedial programs and initiatives. That these low school completion rates figure prominently behind the ongoing and disproportionately high rates of incarceration, homelessness, drug addiction and suicide among Aboriginals is beyond dispute.
So it is shocking that Canada is not supporting or promoting mother-tongue medium education for Aboriginal children at least as a readily addressable solution to these appalling statistics. Indeed, former MP Andy Scott once confided to me that during his term as Minister of Indian Affairs he was instructed not to even visit the immersion schools when he visited First Nation communities that had such schools.
This brings me to the role of the federal and provincial governments, and their obligations under international human rights instruments. Canada is a signatory to at least four such instruments, including the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Rome Statute of the Criminal Court on Crimes against Humanity, and most recently the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Some of these instruments require signatory parties to ensure the survival of Indigenous languages, and some, such as the Genocide Convention and the Rome Statute, call for sanctions against those governments for engaging in actions negatively affecting the well-being of certain groups.
There is little question that the appalling conditions experienced by Aboriginal Peoples in Canada continue in large part as a consequence of submersing Aboriginal children in English or French schools. And there is little doubt that giving Aboriginal children no choice but to attend such schools is tantamount to the forcible transfer of children from one group to another, something which is listed as a crime in the Genocide Convention (Section 2e).
Under these instruments it is not possible for the provinces to leave the matter of immersion education for Aboriginal children to the federal government, as both levels of government educate Aboriginal children and are thus obliged at least to offer parents the option of immersion education.
On the other hand, wherever education in the medium of the mother-tongue has been made available to Indigenous children, the academic performance of those children has invariably tended to improve. And contrary to the mantra of pro-English or pro-French advocates, those Indigenous children who have this opportunity also tend to learn to speak English or French as well or better than their peers in English or French-only schools.
To quote from one study by Dr. Tove Skutnabb-Kangas and Robert Dunbar, the results of a policy implemented in 1993 to educate Indigenous children in their mother-tongue in Papua New Guinea have been most striking:
- The children become literate more quickly and easily in their mother tongues than they did in English;
- they learn English more quickly and easily than their older brothers and sisters did under the old system;
- the results of the Grade 6 examination in the three provinces which were the first to begin the reform in 1993 were much higher than the results of students from provinces where students were immersed in English from Day One of Grade One;
- access to formal education is increasing because many parents now appear more willing to send their children to school and to make the sacrifices necessary to keep them in school;
- dropout – or push-out, as we call it – rates have decreased.
In particular, a higher proportion of girls are in school than was previously the case; •children are more excited, pro-active, self-confident, and inquisitive about learning,and ask more questions.
Considering that a poor country such as Papua New Guinea can implement education in the medium of 380 Indigenous languages, it is impossible for a relatively rich country with far fewer indigenous languages, such as Canada, to say that it cannot afford to do likewise.
Indeed, it has been said in the case of Denmark that it costs considerably more to pay the social cost of incarceration for one person in one year than it would to pay a private tutor to teach someone in his or her language for nine years. And the same could certainly be said of all social costs, that it costs more in the long run to pay those costs than it would to pay for immersion education for Aboriginal children.
So while there may be some extra costs up front to develop immersion programs, the long-term economic benefits, in addition to educational and linguistic benefits, make Canada’s lack of action in the matter perplexing and disturbing.
Though you are no longer in government your voice and your support for Aboriginal immersion programmes could make a huge difference.
Prof. Andrea Bear Nicholas holds Chair of Studies in Aboriginal Cultures of Atlantic Canada at St. Thomas University.