A report out of the Manitoba auditor general's office shows the province still falls flat when it comes to closing the high school education gap for Indigenous students.
The audit by Norm Ricard, the provincial auditor general, urges Manitoba education to usher in new and improved ways to bolster Indigenous student success.
Ricard found the province had fulfilled only two of 19 recommendations as of the beginning of this school year.
Bridging the gap
"We need to put out more for the kids who are so far behind," said Marlene R. Atleo, a senior scholar who has been involved in the process of rolling out Indigenous education in the province.
"I felt that there wasn't really anything happening in Manitoba that really allowed the kind of educational integration," Atleo said. "But, of course, Manitoba has a [long] history of separation of First Nations and non-First Nations people, dating back to the fur trade."
Atleo said the educational system is what creates coherence among Indigenous and non-Indigenous people across Canada.
"If they don't integrate Aboriginal people in through the education system, there's nowhere else that that can happen."
Atleo pointed out that B.C. tracks student performance data at provincial and school district levels — something that has never happened in Manitoba.
The former NDP government committed to bridging the Indigenous education gap in 2004, but a scathing report from early 2016 showed even more Indigenous students dropping out or failing to finish high school. Ricard tracked the province's progress on those indicators.
Follow-up implies province still lagging
Ricard's March report follows up on the 2016 audit.
"It is concerning that the Department's most recent data shows only 55% of Aboriginal students are graduating from high school, compared to 96% of non-Aboriginal students," Ricard said in a 2016 news release.
He found that, since then, the province has made limited progress on 16 fronts, and Manitoba Education declined to take the auditor's advice in one area.
Ricard recognizes that Indigenous students' success can be affected by factors beyond the control of the provincial school system.
"For example, students may find it much more difficult to succeed academically if they and their families are facing the housing, health, financial, and other challenges associated with poverty," Ricard wrote.
"Manitoba's education system must nonetheless strive to meet the educational needs of Aboriginal students."
The province's education department is responsible for ensuring all Manitoba students have access to appropriate, relevant and high-quality education. The auditor general examined whether the department effectively plans, monitors, and reports on department efforts. Ricard also explored the delivery of Indigenous educational initiatives in school divisions and schools, including targeted funding, smooth transition from on-reserve to provincial schools, and teacher resources and training.
Cheyenne Hotomani first dropped out of Children of the Earth High School at age 15.
"Growing up in the North End, I didn't think I would graduate," Hotomani said.
"I dropped out of high school twice."
But the Indigenous youth persevered. She graduated in 2016, with the help of Pathways to Education Winnipeg, a national charitable organization where Hotomani now works.
The Indigenous graduate said systemic barriers to education and historical trauma took a toll on her family.
"But we pushed through together."
Hotomani spoke about the loss of Indigenous identity.
"It was something that kind of disappeared over the years, with residential schools and such, but our people are strong and our identity means a lot for us."
The Manitoba government decided against tracking provincewide achievement data specific to Indigenous students, the auditor notes. Instead, the province breaks down statistics to the divisional level so each division can reflect on the data and plan accordingly.
"The department believes that the uniqueness of each division means that targets for Indigenous student achievement in literacy and numeracy need to be set at the division level, not the provincial level," Ricard writes about the province's take on his advice.
"We continue to support the value of this recommendation because setting provincial targets enables the measurement of overall provincial progress and the adequacy of provincial initiatives aimed at improving outcomes."
Government says 'work is underway'
The Progressive Conservative government said in an emailed statement that many of the auditor general's recommendations are in line with the government's agenda.
"Work is underway to address the remaining 16 recommendations that are in progress," said the email on behalf of Ian Wishart, the education minister.
"Work includes the development of a Literacy and Numeracy Strategy, the Indigenous Education Roundtables and the ongoing implementation of the K-12 Framework for Continuous Improvement. These initiatives, among others, focus on better educational access and outcomes for Indigenous students in Manitoba."
"We continue to work with educational stakeholders and partners to ensure all students have access to meaningful opportunities to succeed," reads the minister's statement.
At least one more follow-up review is scheduled for the auditor general.