Shannen Koostachin, who died in a car accident at the age of 15, is remembered for her drive for educational justice for First Nations youth. As a mother and an educator, I feel a deep sense of failure every time I learn of a child committing suicide. Jordan, Robyn, Jethro, Paul — all between 15 and 21; Alyssa, 11; Sheridan and Amy, 13. The list goes on. Jolyn, Chantel and Jenera, three 12-year-olds in Wapekeka, entered into a suicide pact. Think about it: How can souls that young to decide to die?
In Australia’s Kimberley region, Aboriginal towns have some of the highest suicide rates in the world. This year, 13 children took their lives, five of them between 10 and 13.
There are several narratives about this tragedy, some of which continue to blame the victim(s). Fortunately, many see otherwise.
I look at it with the bias of an educator. It was the educational system that became the dominant instrument of oppression of Canada’s Indigenous peoples. Part of the solution therefore must lie in an alternative system that attempts to undo the effects of such oppression.
No one knows that more than the youth.
The educational system is failing them, they tell us repeatedly. It is indeed.
The first failing lies in the grossly inadequate physical infrastructure. This motivated 14-year-old Shannen Koostachin from Attawapiskat to start a campaign for “safe and comfy schools.” Shannen died in a car accident at 15. Her unforgettable longing for educational justice has now inspired a successful youth-led movement.
The second failing concerns the cultural inadequacy of the curriculum, with serious consequences on empowerment and self-esteem.
But the greatest failing of any educational system occurs when it fails to generate hope.
Hope is a curiously tangible thing, as it is opposite: despair. Hope comes from being heard, from knowing that there is support to overcome barriers, and from being valued.
None of that seems possible now for Indigenous youth or children. What they seek is a continuous pathway beginning with culturally relevant education in the community all the way to university. What they aspire for is a holistic combination of world views and abilities that will help transform their brutal realities.
As First Nations youth said in Feathers of Hope, a forum held in 2013:
“For us, education is not just about learning skills to get a job, it is about learning how to create or become positive members of our communities, better citizens and people who want to learn new ways of helping our people.”
They lamented that too few Indigenous youth go to university or are encouraged to do so: “Without First Nations scholars in universities, the study of our cultures, stories and histories will be missing our voices and continue to be directed and controlled by non-First Nations researchers and academics. . .”
In its submission to the Naylor panel, the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the national organization for Canada’s Inuit, makes a similar case for self-determination of research and knowledge.
“Historically, Canada’s colonial practices denied Inuit the right to formally produce knowledge, share it in our own language, and consume it through the education system. Today, Inuit in Canada are united in stressing the importance of producing knowledge and consuming it through the education system at all levels: from K-12, and post-secondary.”This is a vision of education predicated on self-determination and justice. Education that begins with “safe and comfy” schools and culturally relevant curriculum builds strong foundations for success in high school and offers the opportunity to participate in the creation of new knowledge.What better trajectory can there be for transforming despair into hope? Not only for Indigenous youth, but for all youth who feel […]
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