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Words This Aboriginal Education Activist Never Thought She'd Hear

02/26/2014 09:05 EST | Updated 04/28/2014 05:59 EDT

Verna Kirkness had been on a quest for 42 years. Now that journey brought the 78-year-old to an Alberta high school auditorium. Waiting for Prime Minister Stephen Harper to take the podium, she wondered if her odyssey might finally be over.

Born on Manitoba's Fisher River Cree reserve, Kirkness has dedicated her life to the cause of education for her people. A one-time school teacher, she is one of Canada's foremost experts in aboriginal education. She co-founded the First Nations Learning Institute at the University of British Columbia, and authored six books on aboriginal education.

In her new autobiography, she wrote of her time teaching at residential school, seeing the education system she had managed to avoid herself: "I surely would not have been able to tolerate the regimen, or the repressive and confining atmosphere, and either would have dropped out, as many did, or would have been expelled for breaking one or more of the many rules."

While working with the National Indian Brotherhood (now the Assembly of First Nations) in 1971, Kirkness urged the Manitoba government to revise its textbooks that portrayed indigenous people as lazy and "less intelligent" than other Canadians. The government cut indigenous peoples out of the books entirely.

She told us she remembered the hope she and her colleagues had in 1972, when the Trudeau government accepted their radical proposal: full aboriginal control of aboriginal education, to undo the damage of 100 years of residential schools. But the dream ended in decades of stagnation and broken promises.

Yet, as she awaited Harper, the years had not damped her hope. "I am still an optimist. I still want to believe we can accomplish something," she told us later.

The past several months had been a wild ride, leading up to the February 7 announcement at Kainai High School, a First Nation school near Lethbridge, Alberta.

Shawn Atleo, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), told us recently the Idle No More movement, which began in 2012, had energized aboriginal peoples and non-aboriginal Canadian supporters to push for action on issues like education. On October 22, 2013, the federal government proposed new legislation for aboriginal education. According to Atleo, however, aboriginal communities were not consulted on the proposal, which failed to address the priorities they had been pushing for since the 1970s.

Atleo told us there was a consensus among aboriginal leaders that the process had to remain open and transparent, so aboriginal communities and all Canadians could see what was on the table. On November 25, aboriginal leaders sent a letter to Bernard Valcourt, Minister of Aboriginal Affairs, setting out five conditions for the future of aboriginal education: aboriginal control; stable funding laid down in law; the right to design education programs that reflect aboriginal language and culture; an equal partnership with government in oversight of the aboriginal education system; and ongoing, respectful engagement between government and aboriginal communities.

Atleo told us many of the aboriginal chiefs were not optimistic about getting a positive response from the Minister. So they were surprised when Valcourt replied with his own open letter on December 15 agreeing in principle with all of their conditions. A week before the February 9 federal budget, Atleo got a call: the Prime Minister would make a major announcement in Alberta.

Atleo made sure to invite Kirkness. When Kirkness heard Harper promise legislation giving aboriginal communities full control of on-reserve education, backed with $1.9 billion in new stable funding, she choked up. "I thought I would never hear such words. That feeling that, after all these years, something could finally happen."

Giving aboriginal communities control -- the power to set standards, hire and train their own teachers, and design programs that reflect their individual languages and heritage -- is not simply about more money. It represents a fundamental change in the quality of education aboriginal youth receive. For them, it will make all the difference.

There are 246,000 school-age aboriginal youth in Canada. An estimated 45,000 of these -- 18 per cent of the aboriginal youth population -- are not currently attending school, more than double Canada's overall drop-out rate of 7.8 per cent. The graduation rate for aboriginal students at on-reserve government-run schools is 35 per cent, while those that have been able to sign agreements and find funding to take control of their schools have a graduation rate that routinely exceeds 87 per cent.

The journey is not yet over. There is still some concern over funding, and legislation has yet to be introduced. But the end may finally be in sight.

When Atleo arrived at Kainai, he brought a carved wooden canoe paddle. The Prime Minister and aboriginal leaders signed and presented it to the students of Kainai. It's a symbol of their promise to aboriginal youth -- a promise 42 years in the making that must be kept.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are co-founders of international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. Its youth empowerment event, We Day, is in 11 cities across North America this year, inspiring more than 160,000 attendees from over 4,000 schools. For more information, visit www.weday.com.

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