Jeffrey Simpson writes in today's Globe and Mail that the time may have come to ask whether educational outcomes for on-reserve aboriginal people may better be linked to the existence of the reserve system rather than the funding or governance of on-reserve schools. As is often the case when questions like this are asked no specific feature of the 'reserve system' is identified nor is any solution for problem identified.
The reason for this hole in the argument is actually somewhat simple -- it is actually hard to identify a problem with the reserve system that could explain poor educational outcomes. Here is what the reserve system does not do: (i) it does not force or require anyone to live on-reserve; (ii) it does not take away any legal rights that any person holds any where else in the country; (iii) it does not prevent aboriginal people from owning lands, taking jobs or moving to the cities. The reality of these statements is demonstrated by the fact that many (indeed) probably most aboriginal people do not live on-reserve and pursue their lives far from the reserves in cities.
Furthermore, being an aboriginal person living on reserve does not give an Indian (that is a person having status under the Indian Act) access to a tremendous trove of special benefits. With the exception of a post-secondary education grant and extended health care coverage, most Federal welfare/social assistance programs are harmonized with Provincial programs so there is no real advantage to taking welfare on reserve as opposed to off reserve -- the only change is where your cheque comes from. Indeed, for Indians on rural reserves getting the same social assistance as a person in the city can carry with it real disadvantages given the distances that must be traveled to access things like, say, groceries much less the types of services that are available to the poorly off in the cities.
I suspect that the core of the issue is the approach to the delivery of many public services to aboriginal people is not the reserve system but the view that if we just deliver the same per capita funding for a service to a reserve we should expect the same per capita outcome. That is, if the average funding for a child's education in British Columbia is $10,000 per child then the average funding for an aboriginal child should be $10,000 per child and we should expect the same outcome. This is complete nonsense.
There are obviously issues related to the delivery of services in rural areas and the costs that come with the lack of economies of scale. This is a challenge facing all rural communities, of course, but aboriginal communities face the added challenge that they are not part of a larger cultural group that can accept them in their same cultural milieu in the cities if individuals make the choice to move (that is if you are a non-aboriginal Canadian, moving from 100 Mile House to Vancouver is a move within your approximate cultural setting; if you are Chilcotin, a move from Nemiah Valley to Vancouver is move out of your cultural community). But I think there is a deeper issue here.
Aboriginal communities are communities that are in the midst of a profound crisis. To put it in perspective, think of Europe in the Middle Ages following the fall of Rome, the de-population caused by the Black Death and the invasions by the arabic-muslim armies from the Middle East. These events caused profound social and political disruption which led to death, loss of knowledge and education, loss of political structure and war. Arguably, it was not until well into Renaissance or even the Enlightenment that Europe pulled itself out of despair and disruption caused by those calamities. Imagine now how European cultural would look if instead of the Black Death killing 25% to 30% of the population it killed 85%-95% and did so not over centuries but over a period of probably 100 years. Suppose further that the arabic armies rather than being turned back at Vienna, overran Europe and imposed new, islamic legal and religious structures as the dominant structures and finally that traditional European political, religious and legal structures were shunted aside as large arabic/muslim colonial efforts were undertaken. At the very least it would be fair to say that European culture would look very different today.
Yet this is just what has happened to aboriginal people -- regardless of any moral judgement of the rightness or wrongness of these results -- aboriginal society in North America today is one that is only about 250 years from the type of massive disruptions described above. Moreover, it is still part of an ongoing process where the degree to which the colonial power's political, social and legal structures will be imposed on aboriginal society is being determined and/or negotiated. In the case of education, we are only about twenty years from the end of an attempt to impose Western education by means of industrial scaled removal of children from homes combined with effective internment in education camps (imagine if that were done today to rural non-aboriginal communities) and just beginning an experiment concerning how to deliver education to local aboriginal communities. Furthermore, these communities are dealing with adult populations whose experience of education largely focused on the residential school experience which was not well designed to produce high rates of literacy or a love of learning but was instead designed to provide a basic vocational education.
My thought is that if we stepped back and looked at the matter objectively we would see that the problem in delivery of education to aboriginal people on reserves or anywhere is that we have premised it on the idea that we can deliver it on a footing similar to that on which we deliver it to comfortable, middle-class kids living with parents who are employed, love education and are largely literate. The delivery of education to aboriginal people on reserve is in reality a crisis program -- it needs to deal with the reality that it is being delivered to communities which need help in developing social and educational support structures that we just assume exist everywhere else. We need to figure out how to deliver large scale adult education at the same time as we are delivering childhood education; we need to develop means of delivering supplementary programs; we need to look at school meals to give children the basic physical resources to live so that they can concentrate on education. We need to figure out how to create dedicated corps of teachers who will be committed to delivering aboriginal education.
The real debate we are having is not about the reserve system -- the reality is that most reserves in Canada are empty tracts of lands set in remote areas. They are an economic resource held for the communities -- a small part of a patrimony that has been largely taken away from aboriginal people. Taking that away from aboriginal people is not going to inspire children to learn or adults to think that their children will be treated fairly. The real debate Jeffery Simpson is raising is whether we still think that the best solution for the 'Indian Question' is assimilation -- that is, get on with leaving the reserve, move to the cities and assimilate into the mainstream. The reality is that this is exactly the approach which has been tried for close to 200 years, indeed the first Indian Act was called "An act for the gradual enfranchisement of Indians ..." and was premised on the idea that the reserves were merely an interim step on the road to assimilation.
It is the reality of historical experience that convinces me that the pro-assimilationists are guilty of what a friend of mine calls 'magical thinking'. Assimilation was the policy thrust for 200 years and it was encouraged strenuously through forced education, through forced religious training and through economic incentives which made being an Indian not worth it. And yet it failed to produce significant assimilation and instead produced poverty and social disruption in communities which nevertheless maintained their identities. Indeed, even people who were forcibly enfranchised through things such as the marrying-out rules continued to assert their aboriginal identity and maintain their connection to their communities despite becoming the marginalized amongst the marginalized. What does Jeffery Simpson propose in the face of this? The reserves be disbanded? Houses torn down? Children moved to schools in the cities? Does he think that taking away extended dental care and a post-secondary education grant is going to improve the education of aboriginal children?