Indigenous students in Ontario still face inequities

By Matteo Cimellaro
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Canada's National Observer

Indigenous students in Ontario still have lower attendance and graduation rates and are suspended twice as often as their non-Indigenous peers.

The educational outlook was released recently in two reports examining long-standing education gaps by the Chiefs of Ontario, a regional organization representing 133 chiefs.

Around 67 per cent of Ontario students attended school at least 90 per cent of the time. For First Nations students, that number dipped to 40 per cent overall and to 24 per cent for students living in First Nations communities.

Graduation rates are also lower, with 89 per cent of Ontario students getting a diploma within five years, while only 60 per cent of First Nations students graduated in the same time frame.

For MPP Sol Mamakwa, NDP critic for Indigenous and treaty relations, the rates of suspensions echo the old Indian residential school days.

“This is not the 1950s, this is not the 1970s, this is 2023,” he told Canada’s National Observer. “We’ve got to get out of that type of punishment, that type of thinking, [and] that type of system is not acceptable anymore.”

The reports prompted the opposition in Queen’s Park to call out Doug Ford’s government for failing to address the systemic inequities that remain pervasive for First Nations students in Ontario.

“We need to change the thinking of the people who make the decisions and that starts with the minister,” Mamakwa said, referring to Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce.

In question period, Lecce said the provincial government is committed to First Nations education, pointing to residential school history entering the curriculum and agreements that allow First Nations students to access schools of their choice “without red tape,” even if they live on reserve.

However, for the hundreds of students in remote First Nations in northern Ontario, there is little choice.

Canada’s National Observer investigated the systemic inequities of northern First Nations, including a teaching staffing crisis, alienating curriculum, underfunding dating back decades, lack of early childhood education and more.

Students, some as young as 13, also have to travel by plane to attend high school in major urban centres like Thunder Bay and Kenora, leading to separation of families, experiences of racism and culture shock.

For Mamakwa, Queen’s Park must do more to support First Nations, transform the education system for students to support Indigenous language, and indigenize the curriculum with things like land-based education and the history of treaties.

“In the North, we are rich in resources, but that is all they want,” Mamakwa said, contrasting a boom in mining and other developments with action on education.

Matteo Cimellaro / Canada’s National Observer / Local Journalism Initiative