Mercredi set out to talk about aboriginal peoples 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
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 wouldnt 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
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
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.