Coates: COVID's disruption to education is hurting Indigenous kids the most

Ignoring the learning challenges facing First Nations could unleash employment and career development calamities that shackle an entire generation.

Ken Coates 4 minute read January 17, 2022

Many First Nations students don't have access to laptops, chromebooks or the Internet. Artfoliophoto / Getty Images/iStockphoto

The pandemic has battered our country, the cracks papered over by the expenditure of vast sums of public money. When this scourge finally comes under control, Canada will face a massive and expensive reckoning. The catastrophic hit to small businesses, the crisis in tourism and air travel, disrupted work patterns, related transitions in employment and consumer behaviour, the need to pay for hundreds of billions of dollars in pandemic spending; there are many major issues to be addressed.

First Nations have shouldered an excessive burden throughout the pandemic. As the illness overwhelmed crowded homes on reserves with minimal health services, First Nations shuttered large parts of their economies, although Indigenous economic development agencies responded creatively to new realities. This winter’s COVID wave continues to have a major impact on reserve life, with many local governments locking down communities.

In education, the challenges are huge. While Canada quickly shifted to online learning, reserves struggled with abysmal Internet connectivity; many households lack the computers or tablets required for online learning. Add the challenges of multiple students trying to study in over-crowded homes and it becomes apparent how the COVID-fuelled educational crisis is severely impacting many homes and communities.

First Nations have shouldered an excessive burden throughout the pandemic.

This is no short-term challenge. Lost years of learning can be catastrophic, particularly for younger children under Grade 6 who are in their prime learning years. It is not a simple matter of reopening schools when conditions allow and making a smooth transition back into a regular education cycle. Young people, especially Indigenous children who have been affected far more than most, will labour mightily to get back on a constructive educational track. If remedial steps are not taken, the consequences of three years of educational disruption will be lifelong, with deep impacts on future training, jobs and careers, lifetime earnings and personal well-being.

The first step toward an appropriate response is to listen to First Nations educational authorities. They understand, better than anyone, the extent of problems facing Indigenous youth. Situations vary greatly across the country, and no single approach will work for all Indigenous communities. It is imperative that federal, provincial and territorial governments take stock of the situation across the country, asking local authorities for information on the state of local educational outcomes.

Indigenous communities need detailed strategies for educational renewal. This may mean specialized training and preparation of teachers and administrators; consultations with parents and students about educational needs and conditions; careful evaluation of student learning outcomes; or frank conversations about the specific educational aspirations of different communities.

Indigenous governments and school boards should consider shifting to a year-round approach to elementary school education for at least the next two or three years. This would in turn require a review of curriculum, local achievements, and the long-term educational needs of the students and the schools. Careful planning and implementation of recovery strategies and systematic evaluation are critical.

As part of the solution, Indigenous authorities should be supported in efforts to expand language and cultural education. There is growing evidence that community-based education can increase positive outcomes and empower young people, so local work-related and experiential learning opportunities for Indigenous students should also be expanded.

Throughout the pandemic governments have worked hard, with considerable success, to ensure that life for Canadians continued as close to normal as possible, but there are some areas — education foremost among them — where the turmoil and upheaval of these past three calendar years are leaving an indelible scar on Canadian society.

We have been reluctant to thoroughly examine these problems, no doubt largely because our attention has been relentlessly commandeered by COVID-driven crises. But ignoring alarming shifts in core policy areas will not make them go away. The costs of ignoring the educational challenges facing First Nations are simply too great, and could unleash employment and career development calamities that shackle an entire generation.

Indigenous communities cannot wait to the end of the pandemic to start addressing the ever-growing educational gaps, and to that end, federal, provincial and territorial governments must rally urgently in support of this effort.

Ken Coates is a Senior Fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, and a professor of Public Policy at the University of Saskatchewan, where he is Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation

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