stats Making the Business of Life Easier

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Canada's Apartheid, by John Stackhouse
  Nov. 3

Welcome to Harlem on the Prairies
  Nov. 3 (Saskatoon, SK)

Crystal's choice: The best of both worlds
  Nov. 5 (Mississauga, ON)

How the Mi'kmaq profit from fear
  Nov. 6 (Cape Breton, NS)

The healing power of hockey
  Nov. 7 (The Pas, MB)

Norma Rae of the Okanagan
  Nov. 8 (Westbank, BC)

Comic genius or 'niggers in red face'?
  Nov. 9 (Regina, SK)

Praying for a miracle
  Nov. 10 (Lac Ste. Anne, AB)

To have and to have not
  Nov. 12 (Moosonee, ON)

Trouble in paradise
  Nov. 19 (Tofino, BC)

A cut of the action
  Nov. 26 (Wabigoon, ON)

The young and the restless
  Dec. 3 (Ashern, MB)

The wireless warrior's digital dream
  Dec. 10 (Ottawa,ON)

'Everyone thought we were stupid'
  Dec. 14 (Salluit, QC)

First step: End the segregation
  Dec. 15 (Last in the series)


The young and the restless

Story by John Stackhouse. Photos by Patti Gower.
The Globe and Mail, December 3, 2001

Part 6 of 7: Reserve politics part of the problem

Ashern For the schools, part of the problem is reserve politics, and the half-promises of self-government going bad. On reserves like Fairford, the band has authority over local education, including the right to hire and fire all staff. It has made great strides in hiring native teachers, who make up about half the 25 staff. But teachers, regardless of race, are beholden to the whims of the chief and his council. They have no union protection, no provincial support and only one-year contracts. The ones who value their jobs know not to be too harsh, in discipline or grades, with children of the well-connected.

But money and autonomy also come into play. While a council can instill fear in the teaching staff, its hopes and plans on larger matters - the building of a school, for instance - are tightly controlled by the federal bureaucracy from the Indian Affairs Department.

The final straw was the appearance of snakes - hundreds of them, first in the playground, then slithering out of vents in a Grade 3 classroom. "We killed 80 snakes in one day," Chief Jerry Marsden recalls.

On the Lake St. Martin reserve, about 30 kilometres northwest of Fairford along a series of gravel roads, the band has been fighting with Ottawa for years for a new school, so that its teenagers would not have to make the exhausting commute to Ashern. Now, it's struggling just to keep the existing school open.

The building was condemned last winter, in a saga that shows why local mismanagement and federal intransigence so often combine to hamper aboriginal schooling in ways Ashern's teachers likely can't imagine. The band was forced to close the school after discovering that no one knew how to fix its 16-year-old computer-controlled furnace.

To hire a repairman, the local council had to apply for funding from Ottawa - from the same government that had told the band to build the school on a swampy site that a local elder had said was cursed. The band also needed funds for a new fire alarm and sprinkler system, after it discovered the old ones no longer worked, and for fire extinguishers, which were not provided at the time of construction.

For several months, the school got by with electric heaters and an advisory for children to wear parkas in class. But then the school's water turned a rusty brown, and its air quality seemed to change. When a heavy must scent set in and teachers began to complain of recurring headaches, officials discovered the building was thick with mould.

The final straw was the appearance of snakes - hundreds of them, first in the playground, then slithering out of vents in a Grade 3 classroom. "We killed 80 snakes in one day," Chief Jerry Marsden recalls.

"Schooling is a team effort - it's the parents, the teachers, the community. If one spoke in the wheel is broken, the wheel doesn't work as well."
Archie Latendre,
guidance counsellor

Since the school was closed last February, the federal government has agreed to supply a new $200,000 furnace, as well as four trailers for temporary classrooms for the 200 or so students and four trailer-homes for teachers whose residences also had been condemned. As for the handful of Grade 9 students hoping to go on to Ashern, they are being home-schooled.

The situation is so stressful, on teachers, students and parents, that Marsden is lobbying to knock down the school, and build a $10-million new one that also could accommodate Grades 10 to 12. He would like to spare his reserve's teenagers the need to drive every day to Ashern or move all the way to Winnipeg or Brandon. When his eldest daughter went to Winnipeg for high school, she dropped out in Grade 11, took courses part-time, later got pregnant and now, at 23, lives with her boyfriend and baby, on social assistance.

The much shorter trek to Fairford's school was not an option, seeing as the teenagers from Lake St. Martin feel less welcome there than they do at Ashern. Charles Beardy, the band's education director, says the two reserves have very different cultures. Besides, he adds, the Lake St. Martin kids are fearful of gangs. "Fairford is having problems with their children as well, so they couldn't take in children from other communities," Beardy says.

Whatever the reasons, the flight of students is not just an indictment of shoddy reserve schools; it punishes the native education councils trying to do something to improve them. Reserves receive a set amount from Ottawa for every child in school, but in turn must pay the province for every student who attends a public school. Although that fee last year was about $8,000 for high school and more than $9,000 for elementary, the band told parents that Ottawa gave it less than $6,000 a student.

The Fairford council is no longer willing to cover the difference - to pay for children to go off-reserve when they can study close to home. If students like Roseanna chose the reserve school, the council believes, Fairford just might be able to afford its own French club and volleyball team.

Money would buy those things, but some parents believe money is not enough to restore their faith in the reserve's school. Violence, ill discipline, contempt for a teacher's autonomy - they wonder if those can disappear so easily.

Latendre, the guidance counsellor, sees the education crisis rooted more in the reserve's social problems, in family breakdown and in the homes he dares not send children to during the day, knowing one or both parents will be drunk, or simply absent.

"Schooling is a team effort - it's the parents, the teachers, the community," he says. "If one spoke in the wheel is broken, the wheel doesn't work as well."
THIS STORY AT A GLANCE (Parts 1 to 7):

Photo Essay
Home and school

1. The daily trek
'One of the girls around here said I was turning white'

2. A half-hour away, a world of difference
Class photos, pennants and a ruined gymnasium floor speak volumes

3. Change rolls across the prairies
Ashern tries to create a more welcoming environment for natives

4. Hanging out in the 'Nee-Chee'
The reserve kids stick together, and talk about the white kids who give them dirty looks

5. Life at the Fairford school
Crime, gangs, violence and verbal abuse an unwelcome part of tough curriculum

6. Reserve politics part of the problem
Band has the right to hire and fire all staff at Fairford's school

7. 'I just want to get out of this little place'
Making the trip to school a way of opening minds, opening worlds



photo essays
Two worlds - photo essay

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