Amnesty International brings forward a small window into the “ethical” and “just” treatment of indigenous peoples in Canada.
One kilometre west of the city of Prince Albert, the federal Saskatchewan Penitentiary sits on the site of a former residential school run by the Anglican Church of Canada. As in other prisons across the Prairie provinces, the 20-acre facility houses inmates predominantly of Aboriginal descent. This situation is not unique: Indigenous people represent only three per cent of Canada’s population yet account for 17 per cent of its prison population. As the last of the residential schools have shut down, penitentiaries have become the new form of containment for Indigenous people in Canada. In a 1988 study prepared for the Canadian Bar Association, Aboriginal rights advocate Michael Jackson stated: “The prison has become for many young native people the contemporary equivalent of what the Indian residential school represented for their parents.” Almost 25 years later, young Aboriginal men in Saskatchewan are now more likely to go to prison than to finish high school.
Despite the considerable attention these statistics have received, rarely do we consider them in the context of an ongoing colonial project. We must question how it is that Aboriginal people become tangled up in the justice system at all and why it is that prisons have come to be viewed, in the words of Angela Davis, as an “inevitable and permanent feature of our social lives.” How do institutions like schools, which are presented as disconnected from – or even antagonistic to – incarceration, shape a future of imprisonment for Aboriginal youth in Canada?
Dangerous and unruly
Dominant narratives suggest that disparities in incarceration are the result of individual shortcomings and moral deficiencies. One reader’s comments on aCBC news article on Aboriginal incarceration nicely summarize common attitudes surrounding the issue: “Excuse me. Who is stopping aboriginal people from getting an education? Who is forcing aboriginal people to break the law and commit crime? If one does not break the law, and if one does not commit crime, one does not go to jail.”
Mainstream media plays a central role in driving these discourses. Joyce Green, a researcher on Indigenous-settler relations, says, “For the most part, Aboriginal peoples do not exist for the media, except as practitioners of violence or political opposition, as marketing stereotypes, or as bearers of social pathologies.”
The construction of European settlers as benevolent saviours and of Native people as ungrateful degenerates was necessary to justify the theft of Indigenous land and resources. This is all too often forgotten, as are the continued privileges settlers secure from casting Aboriginal people as dangerous and unruly. It is time to shift the focus from the colonized to the colonizers, and to interrogate the interlocking systems that allow the over-incarceration of Indigenous people to continue.
The school-to-prison pipeline
Canada’s education system, imposed upon Indigenous people for hundreds of years, plays a powerful role in constructing the notion of public enemies in need of discipline and containment. The assumption that the education system today is devoid of its oppressive and violent past unfairly lets schools off the hook. Links between education and incarceration for Indigenous people in Canada are rarely made beyond pointing out that many Aboriginal people in custody are under-educated, often without high school diplomas. Education is touted as an immediate, attractive, and available alternative to youth wishing to avoid so-called criminal activities. While improving levels of education for Indigenous youth is important, we must also scrutinize the education youth are receiving. By assuming that classrooms are neutral, apolitical spaces, schools risk pushing the same colonial agenda that Aboriginal education was founded on.
For education to truly support a future for Indigenous youth outside prison walls, the carceral elements need to be removed from schools. When ideologies of discipline and punishment are used to govern schools, the education system is complicit in the movement of students from classrooms to prisons. Schools must not be places where Aboriginal youth are constructed as unruly and in need of discipline from white saviours. Research conducted by criminologists Raymond Corrado and Irwin Cohen demonstrated that out of 100 Aboriginal youth in custody in British Columbia, 96 per cent of the males and 85 per cent of the females had previously been in trouble at school.
Getting into trouble at school is often the first slip into the “school-to-prison pipeline.” This is a term coined by researchers in the United States, who have been making the links between schooling and prison for several decades. The term describes systemic practices in public schooling such as special education, discipline, and streaming programs that move poor, racialized youth out of school and place them on a pathway to prison.
Prison abolitionist Erica Meiners argues that schools and prisons become interconnected when schools legitimize and enhance select fears that in turn require the intervention of the justice system. This occurs in covert ways, for example, through institutionalized racism, law-and-order approaches to discipline, and the exclusion or negative portrayal of non-dominant groups. Indirectly, these are all processes that can perpetuate fear and encourage discipline and punishment of those students who deviate from the socially constructed and imagined parameters of normalcy.
U.S. education researcher Pedro Noguera points out that racial disparities in school discipline and achievement mirror the disproportionate confinement of racialized people, and that students most frequently targeted for punishment in school often look like smaller versions of the adults most likely to be targeted for incarceration. Noguera further argues: “Schools also punish the neediest children because in many schools there is a fixation with behavior management and social control that outweighs and overrides all other priorities and goals.”
Across Canada, Indigenous students are overrepresented in special education and alternative schooling programs. In 2005, a group of educators concerned about the current system of special education for Aboriginal children organized a national symposium at the First Nations University in Regina. The symposium concluded that the current system of providing special education, “based on the Western views of diagnosis and treatment,” is – simply put – “a mess.”
In British Columbia, one government report notes that Aboriginal students are identified as having severe behavioural disorders 3.5 times as often as the general K-to-12 student population. Teachers, who are predominantly white, frequently have lower expectations for Aboriginal youth than for non-Aboriginal students. Often teachers’ only contact with Aboriginal people is inside their classrooms. The same report notes, unsurprisingly, that Indigenous students report frequent incidents of overt racism in school and often feel lonely and isolated while attending school.
Instead of examining factors like those above, we often turn to paradigms of cultural difference as the explanation and the remedy for Aboriginal under-education. This has been happening since the early 1970s, when government officials began to question why high numbers of Aboriginal students were leaving school. The cultural difference theory has since been repeatedly recycled and usually goes something like this: Aboriginal students are culturally different, and the disconnect between their home lives and school lives is so great that they are unable to succeed in school. More cultural awareness is needed on the part of educators, and more Aboriginal culture must be included in the curriculum.
At first, this theory seems to make sense. After all, schools are Eurocentric, and the infusion of Indigenous worldviews is indeed an important part of decolonizing our schools. Yet the recognition and validation of Indigenous culture is but one part of decolonization. When it is viewed as the solution to everything, taking the form of superficial lessons on song and dance taught by a white teacher, significant change is forestalled. An emphasis on cultural differences also allows for the erasure of topics such as racism, discrimination, and violence. And perhaps most importantly, it allows the blame to remain with the Aboriginal Other, whose “cultural differences” have come to signify inferiority.
Refusing to participate
Many predict that the racial disparity in Canada’s prison population is set to worsen because of the Conservative government’s new crime legislation passed in March. Included in the long list of stiffer penalties composing the omnibus crime bill, otherwise known as the Safe Streets and Communities Act, is the creation of more criminal offences, more mandatory minimums, and the abolition of statutory release with supervision. The legislation has been fiercely opposed by correctional officials, police chiefs, medical associations, victims’ advocates, lawyers, judges, and criminologists, who point out that harsher penalties are ineffective in decreasing crime and that such measures systemically target poor and racialized people.
During the 1990s, when the prison population in the U.S. grew exponentially, school suspensions and expulsions increased drastically as well. Punitive measures in the law-and-order system seeped into schools with devastating consequences for racialized youth. With Canada’s own regressive reforms to criminal laws that shamefully mirror those that have proven to be a failure in the U.S., we must work to resist similar outcomes.
The suggestion that schools place Aboriginal students on a trajectory to prison is in many ways antithetical to democratic ideals of education. But an important part of redirecting the gaze from the colonized to the colonizer is examining what often goes unquestioned or is accepted as common sense. Although schools can be positive forces in the lives of many youth, the opposite holds true for many others.
The over-incarceration of Indigenous people is not an unassailable reality. It is a violent, colonial project that requires the co-operation and complicity of countless people. Unmaking the situation will require the same sustained and concerted effort. Learning how we are all invited to participate in the colonial project of Aboriginal over-incarceration – and then refusing to do so – is the first step in demolishing the pipeline to prison for Aboriginal youth in Canada.
Amanda Gebhard is a PhD candidate in education at the University of Toronto and a former Saskatchewan school teacher. She is interested in disrupting educational inequality.
It dawned on me recently that when I speak about FNMI education, and I do this without thinking about it, I always use a western worldview on it. Then I got to thinking, I did take a course on Coursera (ya, there’s plug there.. 🙂 on indigenous education and worldviews. The course was given by Jean-Paul Restoule, a professor at OISE at the University of Toronto. I learned about aboriginal worldviews, confirming that I shared the same views as FNMIs on worldviews!
What I’m trying to get to, rather awkwardly, is that education for FNMIs cannot be approached using the same thinking as Western education. See, in Euro-Canadian culture education is seen as a race, one you begin at the earliest moment of your life and are supposed to finish sometime in your twenties. At the reverse, traditionally (at least for the woodlands aboriginal and métis cultures) the medicine wheel shapes educational principles. The medicine wheel is separated in four main quadrants, each representing a part of one’s life. It only popped in my head recently that education is similar. One doesn’t stop to learn or be educated simply because one is done with school. Learning is a lifelong pursuit and recently, I would say, it has been added sideways to the thinking of settler education with an emphasis on continuing education and the value of which is only pushed as necessary in certain fields and under certain circumstances. In my opinion, if FNMI education is approached as a journey as opposed to an end, it will fare better for all parties involved because the problem with imposing education as a means to an end is that you get many people alienated by the whole thing. One aspect of education that is often overlooked now a day for whatever reason is the separation of boys and girls starting in grade 6 all the way through High School. Let me explain, young boys during that time are filled with hormones just as much as young girls. This is nature’s way. They don’t know nor understand what is happening (or maybe they do and are good are pretending otherwise), they just know it is and that suddenly, the boy or girl next to them is interesting enough to forgo learning the lesson. In addition, in my opinion, it causes undo stress on them as they work tirelessly as nature intended it to be to impress the one person who represents the object of their attentions.
In this way, I wish to raise attendance along with student success. Let me know what you think, I’d love to get feed back on all of this!
It has come to my attention, after reviewing many of my posts, that I seem to write in a highly negative context, as though there is nothing good happening in the field of FNMI education. I need to stress that it isn’t the case. Yes, FNMIs have endured horrific acts during the Residential School Era of our shared history, however, not 100% of them were “brainwashed” into thinking that their own culture, traditions, and everything their parents and ancestors gave them was nonsense. Women have long been the staff bearers of the culture, nurturing it, caring for it, and keeping it alive… Amidst the hundreds of murdered and missing women in recent years, even with the violence committed against them by a system that viewed them as inferior to men of their on communities, they held on. For that, I salute their bravery and unending drive to keep their culture alive. Men have done the same as well. Keeping traditions like building birch bark canoes, building traditional homes, and hunting and trapping alive. I also salute them for their bravoury in the face of cultural genocide.
Why speak of all this when it comes to FNMI Education? It’s simple really; everything has to do with it. Education is only one rung in a chain of other events, and it is as much a part of it all as traditional foods, language, beliefs, and culture.
There are many who seek to reestablish the ties that were broken by colonialism. They work diligently to invite settlers to come to know their neighbours, and know who they say they are. If we are to move along, then both parties have to come to terms with it and start respecting each others values and worth.
This is a big reason for this blog.
Well, first, this is what grabbed my attention in the news. I know, it has nothing, at first glance, to do with FNMI education, but go along with me on this for now. On CBC, it was reported that the federal government is freezing EI payments into the system. Quoting a fall in unemployment as the major factor in this decision. Furthermore, they add that it will be of benefit to small businesses. Here’s the link:
Now, how will this affect FNMI education, you may ask? Well, very smart of you to do so! Those who got jobs and are therefore no longer requiring social assistance got jobs working, for the most part, part-time, occasional shifts. Now, under a previous reform to EI by this government, those jobs count as being employed, even if you only work, say, a couple of days a week, making minimum wage, or 10$ per hour. Now, hold on, 160$ per week seems reasonable, doesn’t it? Sure it does, but the moment you dare having a second job, you’re taxed even more! So, what does THAT mean to FMNI education?
Well, it means children who are part of Canada’s most under-funded marginalized group are pushed even further under the proverbial carpet. Parents will have to go further, if at all, to get employment, and children will be scooped-up again by settler organisms that say they are acting in the ebst interest of the children but when it comes to FNMI children, the best practice is more often then not to leave them in their community and increase funding to social services.
I also find it absolutely intriguing that CBC in French does not report on the same tone as CBC in English… Could be that the CBC knows the current government does not read, speak, write, care or comprehend francophones, therefore, it doesn’t really matter. Just a side moo-point.
What do you think about cutting funding to the social net? I think that the next time Canadians find themselves out of work, they’ll be cheering the fact that this government took away a large part of this net and take this cheer to the streets in a show of just how much they love the situation! After all, the predecessors of this government only created social welfare to last a couple of years, right?
Stay tuned for more on FNMI Education, I’ll keep expanding the topic, I promise!
So, I’ve been racking my brain since the last post on how to make education more accessible to FNMIs. What I found is that to make it, the system must be completely overhauled and that starts with evaluations. Teachers need to be trained at the source to ditch grades all together. Not too long ago, Ontario revalued the way it did evaluations. One facet it changed was to attribute a success level instead of grades. I push for further reform, Ontario’s steps went the right way, just not far enough. I call for the complete abolition of any and all ways to categorize students. In my belief, any grading before grade 10 is bad practice. A better practice would be to establish a system of pass/fail. Any work produced by students will be solely graded on either a pass or fail. Of course, current practices about discouraging a fail by students will remain in place, but students must s be permitted to fail, so long as they understand the reason for this failure.
Testing as a practice must be eliminated. It is an archaic practice that continues to privilege a third of the classroom while any other third struggles to stay afloat and the last third simply gives up. When people think back on school, they more often then not indicate that they hated the experience. Not the learning aspect, but the structure of it all. Evaluation and bookkeeping will be standardized as it is in other professions. This will initially encounter resistance from the establishment but it will at the end be of benefice to all parties involved, the students, the parents, the teachers and the school officials. No wonder that students feel liberated once they finish their public education, they no longer feel pressured to perform above their capabilities.
To sum-up, FNMI school programs need competent educators, materials and resources along with a pass/fail evaluation method until they arrive to grade 10.
Until next time! And don’t forget ot subscribe so you don’t miss any updates!
The impact of the housing crisis on FNMI lands is absurd. In house, built to house a family of four, now house upward of 8 or more. On top of this, walls are rotting and the insulation needs a severe upgrade if not outright replacement. Black mould rules this lpace, and the water coming from the taps cannot be consumed, not even to brush your teeth in some cases. And to add insult to injury, the people living in these conditions are not allowed, barred from improving their condition because they don’t own the house, they don’t pay rent or property tax for it either, but they’re not allowed to touch the structure of the house by government orders. Meanwhile, they are forced to “find” work on their reserve, which is oftentimes hundreds of kilometers away from the nearest settlers.
Now, I know the situation seems bleak and you might ask yourself, certainly as I do: why would anyone want to keep living there? And were right to ask ourselves that question, but the image I gave is only a part of the grander image. People living on reserves, and the worst ones, are not so dejected by their own society that they leave in one way or another. There is certainly the rash of suicide that would make any settler society call in a state of emergency and put mental health at the forefront.
I recently saw the documentary “I Am” by Tom Shadyac. It restated a lot of what I believed to be true, and a lot of things I didn’t know about the world around us. I strongly recommend everyone to view! It’s on NetFlix if you have that or at your nearest video store, I’m certain they could order a copy if they don’t already have one. It explores what right with the world today after starting with the question of what’s wrong. So, what can I do? Aside from education on reserves, A LOT! More on that after some research!