THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS
They live on a reserve they feel can't teach them how to make
their dreams come true. Meet Roseanna Anderson and the other
youngsters who have given up on the school run by Manitoba's
Fairford First Nation. Every day their thirst for knowledge
takes them away from home to a world where they exist on
the margins. Does it have to be this way?
By JOHN STACKHOUSE
Monday, December 3, 2001 Print Edition, Page A10
Every morning before dawn, Roseanna Anderson packs her bag and heads to the end of a dirt road to await the little yellow school bus that will carry her and a few neighbours to a different world.
Here in the Interlake, the dreary flatlands between Manitoba's three great lakes, where the white people farm and the Indians fish, Roseanna makes a daily trek across the solitudes of segregation, with her past rooted in one and her hopes planted in another.
One of 30 young people from Fairford who study off the reserve, taking their federal education dollars with them, Roseanna opted for Ashern Central School, she says, because it's bigger and better, and offers more opportunities to experience the outside world.
She wanted to join the French club, which is planning a trip to Paris. She wanted to play flute in the school band, which travelled to British Columbia last spring.
"One of the girls around here said I was turning white," she says, playing with the cuff of her Nike sweatshirt. "I don't care. I want to go to France."
Most of all, at 14, Roseanna believes an integrated education will be a giant step out of her family's cloistered reserve. But her ambitions also pose a giant challenge to her first nation and her province.
As Manitoba's large native population shifts to towns and cities, the province's school system is struggling to create a more welcoming environment for Indian and Métis children. In the school division around Ashern, about 30 per cent of the students are aboriginal.
At the same time, dozens of reserves like Fairford, which is known formally as Pinaymootang, are trying to keep their young people closer to home, to be educated and shaped in their own culture and, in some cases, language.
It's not only a matter of pride: Students mean money. School boards everywhere are competing for bodies, but first nations are confronted with crippling dropout rates and endemic social problems.
In the languor of Fairford, which sprawls like a crowded ranch across the countryside 225 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg, nothing divides parents more than rural Manitoba's great school question. Many see the reserve school, with its smaller student body and ongoing gang violence, as inferior.
One band councillor sends his two children to a private school off the reserve. So did the chief, whose youngest daughter graduated last June from Ashern. The chief's wife, Loretta Woodhouse, is also vice-principal of Fairford's school, but defends the decision. The school, she says, is improving, against tough odds. But like many parents on the reserve, she has high hopes for her children. "I want them to be out there, to experience the world, to be self-sufficient people."
The school that Roseanna shuns is a half-hour drive from the one she has embraced. They might as well be in two different countries.
When the bus drops her at Ashern Central's front door, the sun is barely above the tree line -- just enough to glimmer on the gauntlet of trophy cases she must run in the school's main hall. Ashern's athletic prowess, highlighted by a gymnasium draped with pennants, is the stuff of Interlake legend. The senior girls volleyball team has been to the provincial championship three years in a row.
Roseanna knows the gym at the reserve school has no pennants -- only a hardwood floor that was ruined last spring when someone left the locker-room showers running for an entire weekend.
Roseanna says her photo will hang on the wall one day, but right now she is simply trying to fit in. Her bell bottoms and the Champs nylon jacket that slides stylishly off her shoulders meld seamlessly with the corridor's hip-hop dress code, and for a moment the native girl seems at ease in this other world.
But then she reaches Dave Hull's math class, and takes her seat alone in the back row. On her desk is a calculator and Pepsi bottle, the tools of higher learning here.
Although Roseanna's parents want her to get an education just like the white kids in Ashern, it is up to Hull to ensure her schooling has a native flavour. As well as teaching math, he is the aboriginal education adviser, promoting a new provincial initiative to bring native students into mainstream education and to adapt mainstream education to native viewpoints.
As part of the experiment, course material is under review, history books are being revised and posters depicting aboriginal success stories have been taped to Ashern's walls, next to the trophy cases. It's all part of a plan to foster greater understanding and to put native students at ease. "If they feel comfortable," Hull says, taking the plan to its logical conclusion, "they'll likely be more successful in school."
But even he admits that much of what native students need is just good teaching. Like Roseanna, reserve kids tend to sit at the back of their classes, rarely speaking up. There are no native students on the honour roll, and few on the school's championship sports teams. Just five of Ashern's 30 graduates last year were native, but the year before there were only two.
Hull coaches the junior varsity badminton team, and four of the 12 girls are native, but "off-reserve," meaning their families live in and around Ashern. It is up to him to draw the others out.
As his Grade 10 math class begins, Hull moves from desk to desk, letting the 19 students who have shown up today know in private what their mid-term mark will be. He stops a little longer at Roseanna. She has a 61 -- better than most but both teacher and student know it could be much higher.
Hull urges her to bear down and asks if she needs extra help to prepare for an upcoming exam. She shakes her head, but the truth is that she can't stay after school because the bus back to the reserve leaves at 3:30 sharp. Hull seems to know that, and suggests she get help during lunch or spares. Roseanna shakes her head again. Her lunches are booked.
Dishevelled but calm, Hull looks more the part of math teacher than cultural peacemaker as he returns to the blackboard to explain the algebraic concept of dilation.
When he moved here from New Brunswick five years ago, no one much cared about the handful of aboriginal students who drifted in and out of the school. Few stayed long enough to do much more than inspire racist graffiti and take part in a few fights.
A conservative, gun-loving town -- "Registration today; confiscation tomorrow," reads a billboard next to the official welcome sign -- Ashern didn't seem to have much time for natives anyway.
But then change started to roll across the Prairies. The struggling wheat trade could no longer support the area, and young people started to leave in big numbers. With fewer than 1,600 year-round residents between them, Ashern and the rural municipality of Sigunes were at risk of becoming little more than a place to retire and a stopover for American fishermen and hunters on their way north.
Like much of rural Manitoba and Saskatchewan, Ashern began to realize that its future would be increasingly aboriginal. If the secondary school, for example, didn't start to draw more reserve students, its population of 220 or so would dwindle in time. The province also recognized the benefit in drawing federally funded native students, but it knew that, to do so, its schools had to change. Too many were known, at least on reserves, as bastions of racism.
In September, 2000, Ashern Central conducted a confidential survey, asking aboriginal students how often they felt like "a valuable part of the school." Roughly half replied, "Rarely or never."
To create a more welcoming environment, the school now promotes native issues as much as volleyball. A mixed group of students has decked the halls with posters of successful natives such as Gerry Auger, the Cree entrepreneur in Alberta who once lived on the street, and Dr. Stanley Vollant, the first member of Quebec's Montagnais people to become a surgeon. The school also has brought in high-profile native speakers and decided, after a student from Fairford wrote an essay describing the cold stare of discrimination, to hold an anti-racism day.
Hull knows there are some barriers, such as distance, which he cannot bring down. For those students who come by school bus, the early-morning pickups, which start at 7 a.m., can be enough to make someone drop out early. Moreover, the need to rush to the bus when classes end keeps many reserve kids from joining teams and clubs.
But Hull thinks he can at least lay out a welcome mat. In many classes, an aboriginal point of view is now included in course material. The school itself is also expected to promote traditional native values such as belonging, mastery, independence and generosity. In the library, the native sensitivity program has added such works as The Seven Grandfathers, Little Boy and the April Raintree series of books about the struggles of a native girl growing up.
The one thing Fairford students miss by coming to Ashern is training in Saulteau, the Ojibway dialect spoken by their people. Roseanna says she would rather study French.
In time, however, teaching at Ashern may be transformed. Manitoba, along with other western provinces and the northern territories, is trying to extend integrated education by examining the very approach schools take to native students. Until now, the typical reserve kid -- shy, insecure, probably ill-prepared by his or her primary school -- has been shunted aside. Placed in a special learning group, or simply left at the back of a class, he or she has dropped out eventually almost as a matter of course.
To change that, the province now looks for "distinctive" learning outcomes for aboriginal students, using a different yardstick to measure progress. For example, a social-studies unit allows native students to learn about democracy on their reserves, rather than sticking to what the rest of their class studies.
The government is also pushing schools to look at the home front, where learning problems often start. In the future, tutors may visit students on the reserve, rather than expect them to wait after school.
Some school divisions have created mentoring teams to help native kids adjust to mixed schools, and Brandon has launched Circle of Friends, a program to find reading buddies for reserve children, who often reach high school barely able to understand the written word. There is also talk of putting elders in provincial schools to coach and discipline native students who might turn away from a non-native guidance counsellor.
Hull would like to go further and see history teachers explain a controversial native view of creation (that the Creator put aboriginal people in Canada), along with the Bering Strait explanation of early migration. He knows such teaching would offend the many Christian fundamentalists on local reserves, whose own view of creation is excluded from the provincial classroom. But he believes the school system must find novel ways to make native children feel included.
"They must believe that their traditions have value in this school."
The Nee-Chee kids talk about the white kids -- the ones who don't invite them to parties, who don't pass them the ball, who make whooping sounds within earshot to embarrass them. How can they all be expected to get along?
Wayne Woodhouse was one of the crowd until last year when, at 17, he dropped out of Grade 10 because other students were giving him "dirty looks." His friend, Doug Traverse, dropped out when he fell behind in class and his biology teacher raised his voice at him. "I'm not a little kid to be yelled at," he says, now back on the reserve.
The reserve kids claim that a pervasive sense of white superiority at Ashern is the reason they eat at the Sharptail every day, or wind up staying home to watch TV. But to Randy Chartrand, racism is more a state of mind -- "a false belief" promoted on reserves to make children fearful of the so-called "white" world. "It's just too easy to say this happened because I'm aboriginal."
Big and burly, Chartrand is Ashern's only aboriginal staff member. A Métis who teaches industrial arts, he is as hard-line on the school's racial tensions as Hull is conciliatory. In contrast to Hull's roots in a comfortable Fredericton suburb, Chartrand, 40, grew up in Winnipeg's rough-and-tumble inner city. Hull saw natives mostly on the hockey rink. Chartrand saw whites at the front of his classroom. He went to a Catholic school, but no one talked about race. The challenge was to get ahead. He became a carpenter and then took up a job teaching shop.
His first posting was to Grand Rapids at the north end of Lake Winnipeg where 80 per cent of his students were native. He, like some parents at Fairford, applied for a transfer so that his son could go to a bigger school with more courses, more teams and higher standards.
Ashern has three science courses in Grade 10. Chartrand's old school had one. Ashern has a library with two colour TVs and VCRs, computers in many classrooms, a fully equipped band room and a large woodworking and auto body shop. At Grand Rapids, there were only desks and chairs.
In his spacious carpentry shop, Chartrand shrugs at the mention of curriculum enhancements for natives. He believes the challenge in teaching is not about race; it's about bringing together strangers.
Although he has no posters, educational tools or special training, Chartrand is carrying out his own race relations program with what he calls a "hidden agenda." At the start of a term, he organizes students of different races to work together on projects, such as building a model bridge out of wood. More often than not, it's the first time the teens have had to talk with people from different backgrounds, let alone work with them.
If race issues crop up, Chartrand jumps on them. "We have to work with young people to deal with it -- after high school, where is there a public forum to be respectful?" he says. "I try to teach kids we all have differences. Just because you disagree doesn't mean it's because you're aboriginal and he's non-aboriginal. Just because this person bumped into you doesn't mean it's a racist problem."
He knows his views would not be popular on reserves where, he says, "a wall" is built in children's minds at a very young age. So when they have problems at school, as most teens do, too many of them pin it on race. "For me, it's just two students who disagree about something, but the wall is there, a racial belief to stand up for yourself."
Half an hour up Highway 6, Fairford sits isolated, hidden from the road and most of the life that passes by. Built on the banks of the Fairford River, there is little more to the reserve than compact houses, trailers and few small cattle farms.
Fairford's bland sprawl masks a deep spirituality -- the place has become an evangelical hotbed. A new church is going up, and parents are pushing to have the reserve school's curriculum place greater emphasis on Christian values.
The religious fervor, however, belies a crime wave on area reserves that is blamed on the infiltration of gangs such as Winnipeg's infamous Indian Posse. They thrive on the illicit drug trade and see native communities as prime recruiting zones. And no reserve school seems to be free of their influence, which is why many parents want to get their kids out.
But some, such as Roseanna's mother, fear as well that students who graduate from Fairford's school do so ill-prepared for higher education. That's why Diane Gould also sends Roseanna's sister, Jasmine, to Grade 4 in Gypsumville. "You notice the difference the first week your kid moves," she says.
Gould also thinks that native children who, like her own, have fairer skin are taunted at Fairford and called "white trash." She isn't oblivious to the racial divide that confronts Roseanna in Ashern but feels that, with some level of discrimination and verbal abuse to be found everywhere, what really matters is how a school deals with it. "I know there's lots at Ashern but she doesn't have a problem with it."
Derrick Gould, Roseanna's uncle, also sends his children to the primary school in Gypsumville. A political rival of the band's current chief, he graduated from Fairford himself but now compares it to "a jail." His 12-year-old daughter, Cheyanne, says the violence and verbal abuse are now so bad that she'd be willing to sell one of her prized 4-H cows to keep attending school off the reserve.
A visit to the school reveals that the morass begins right in the parking lot, where no one bothers about the beer cans strewn across the gravel. It's morning recess, and kids are kicking a ball against the principal's office window.
Inside, in the hallway, there is a sign that reads "Be Considerate," and someone has added above it: "Don't." Elsewhere, janitors have scrubbed the walls of Indian Posse logos and are about to unlock the library for a group of students whose teacher didn't show up.
The place has been renovated but the fact remains that only about a fifth the students now in Grade 9 are likely make it through Grade 12.
Archie Latendre, the guidance counsellor, sends his own daughter to Ashern. He is a Fairford graduate and believes it has many excellent teachers and can match Ashern academically, but is harmed by its lack of size and disciplinary problems. He admits he would not want to see his daughter studying next to people like the 18-year-old put in Grade 9 a couple of years ago as a condition of his parole, or the Grade 7 kid who pepper-sprayed a girl -- right in the classroom.
"My own view is that experiencing other environments, other communities is very healthy," Latendre says, trying to balance parental concern with job loyalties.
Fighting and abusive language among her Grade 3 pupils persuaded Derrick Gould's wife, Sherri, a teaching assistant at Fairford, to ship out her daughters. She says she understands her pupils' pain -- that the violence they bring to class often reflects what they see at home, that learning to read (which some can't do even by Grade 7) isn't their greatest need. "A lot of these kids come from big families," says Gould, who's now on maternity leave, "and when they come to school, they're striving for that attention." One child has been in nine foster homes.
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 held captive 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 down at Indian Affairs.
The band was forced to close the school after discovering that no one knew how to fix its computer-controlled furnace. To hire a repairman, it had to apply for funding from Ottawa, the same government that had told it to build on swampy ground an elder said was cursed.
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 hundreds of snakes, 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.
Since the school was closed last February, the federal government has agreed to 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 were condemned. But the situation is now so stressful that Marsden wants to build a new $10-million school that also could accommodate Grades 10 to 12. He would like to spare his reserve's teenagers the need to drive to Ashern or move all the way to Winnipeg or Brandon.
The much shorter trek to Fairford is not an option, seeing as kids from Lake St. Martin feel less welcome there than they do at Ashern. Education director Charles Beardy says the two reserves have very different cultures. "Fairford is having problems with their children as well, so they couldn't take in children from other communities."
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.
Fairford's council no longer will cover the difference -- pay for children to leave when they can study close to home. If students like Roseanna stuck with it, the council believes, the reserve school 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."
In fact, Dave Hull recently left Ashern's staff to become the aboriginal education co-ordinator for the local school division, which covers eight schools and 1,450 students. He is working with teachers to incorporate aboriginal issues in all their classes, and developing relationships with the surrounding reserves. One of those teachers is Randy Chartrand, the Métis shop instructor who is now preparing a native studies course.
Attendance rates are improving, Hull says, as are the number of parents coming from distant reserves for teacher interviews.
Back at Fairford, opinions are more divided. While the band is pushing parents to keep their children in the reserve school, and thus boost its budget and teaching staff, families like the Goulds won a temporary victory when they took their case to a regional native authority to argue that their children could not gain access to special needs -- French, among them -- at the reserve school. It has agreed, for now, to subsidize the public schooling.
The reserve school has made changes, too. A new principal has taken a tougher line, with the support of the band council, and teachers are encouraged to voice their concerns. There is also more contact with the parents of misbehaving students and, of course, it hasn't hurt that the alleged ring leaders of the Indian Posse presence have been arrested in connection with some damaged construction equipment.
The politics of schooling may seem distant to a 14-year-old like Roseanna, especially as she pecks away at her homework and tries to catch some sleep on the drive home. But they just may shape her reserve's future.
After her school bus passes through forests and plains once inhabited by her people but long ago ceded to grain farms and hydro right-of-ways, it drops her at the band's gas station, where her older brother is waiting in the family car.
As the white kids back in Ashern settle into an after-school routine of volleyball and badminton practices, Roseanna will return to a comfortable ranch bungalow, fitted with two satellite dishes and a landscaped garden, on the edge of the Fairford River. She drops her knapsack at the door, grabs a Pepsi from the fridge and races her brother for the remote control. Sabrina, the Teenage Witch is on but so is The Simpsons. They end up flipping between shows on the 36-inch screen that dominates the living room, while their mother microwaves pasta for dinner.
For a moment, Roseanna looks away from the screen, through the sliding-glass door to the river that runs north into Lake St. Martin and on to Lake Winnipeg, and suddenly her mind is flowing in another direction, to her future.
She says she is happy with Ashern, and all the opportunities it has given her. She can't speak Saulteau fluently or describe her band's history in much detail. But at 14 she is aware of a much bigger world than the one at Fairford.
"I just want to get out of this little place," she says.