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March 1999

Aboriginal Education:
Ovide Mercredi Reflects

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Ovide Mercredi, former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations and currently adjunct professor at Laurentian University, enthralled the audience at the Quest Conference.

Mercredi set out to talk about aboriginal people’s education in Canada. What evolved was a gripping picture of a young life being influenced and controlled by forces beyond his control or that of his parents.

When Mercredi was growing up in the 1950s on a reserve in Grand Rapids, Manitoba, educational opportunities were scarce. He was lucky there was an elementary school on the reserve.

Cree was the language in his community. At school it was English. The only time the children could speak Cree at school was at recess, and they only spoke it then if they thought they wouldn’t be caught. Mercredi remembered that even in the summer when he was playing with his friends, if they ran across the schoolyard they would speak English and then resume speaking Cree when they ran off.

When the Manitoba government decided to build a dam near Grand Rapids, Mercredi first glimpsed the inequality between educational opportunities for aboriginal people and the white community. Four thousand workers and their families descended to work on the dam construction. Immediately, schools with decent facilities were built to accommodate the workers‘ children.

Mercredi said that residential schools are the most common experience for contemporary aboriginal adults. The Indian Act had delegated the education of aboriginal children to the churches because the aim was to assimilate aboriginal people into white society. Separated from parents, grandparents and their community, children did not have the opportunity to learn the values and indigenous knowledge of their society. Instead, Mercredi said, the lessons they learned concerned literacy, mathematics, science and white superiority. The children either became very submissive or very rebellious. Many ran away.

Mercredi moved to The Pas in the 1960s and went to the integrated high school in town. Later, when an NDP government was elected, initiatives were put in place to help adult learners complete their education. Mercredi took advantage of this opportunity and entered university, eventually earning a law degree.

In 1973, aboriginal people took control of their education system. Residential schools were phased out, and schools were given to the bands. Since then, to varying degrees, the local schools have been run by the aboriginal people. Aboriginal teachers in the system are the greatest catalyst for change.

However, the curriculum in aboriginal schools continues to be set by the provinces, and the federal government disputes educational costs with the provincial government and the aboriginal communities.

Mercredi reminded the Quest Conference of the recent recommendations on education of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. The commission recommended that aboriginal people make their own laws about education, that courses in aboriginal history, culture and language be embedded in the system, that more aboriginal teachers be trained and hired and that there be more community involvement in the schools as well as more supports.