On the margins in the wealthy West

By Karen Moore, policy analyst, Education for All Global Monitoring Report

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The word marginalization often brings to mind those in the world’s poorest countries. But on a trip to Canada last week I was reminded of one of the key messages of the 2010 Education for All Global Monitoring Report: that marginalization persists in the world’s richest countries.

While I was visiting my hometown of Edmonton, the provincial capital of Alberta, the local newspaper, the Edmonton Journal, ran a four-part series focusing on the educational marginalization of over 9,000 First Nations children studying in Alberta’s ‘reserve schools.’  ‘First Nations’ refers to indigenous peoples in Canada who are neither Inuit nor Métis (people of mixed First Nations and European ancestry).

The series resonated with many of the themes of the 2010 GMR, which noted that “the legacy of marginalization facing indigenous people in rich countries has received insufficient attention” (p158), and reported on the challenges faced by Aboriginal students in Australia and Māori students in New Zealand (p158-9).

The evidence presented by the Edmonton Journal was shocking. The vast majority of on-reserve First Nations students fail provincial achievement tests: between 1999 and 2001, for example, 96% failed or were absent for the Grade 9 math test. Most never reach high school. Teachers are paid about 20% less than the provincial average. Almost half of on-reserve schools operate at less than half capacity. (The data were from an unpublished provincial report from 2003; there is a serious lack of up-to-date data.)

While only 14% and 19% of those studying on reserve achieved at least 50% in science and social studies respectively, almost 20% more students from the same community who were bussed to provincial schools achieved this. First Nations students and their parents thus often face a stark choice: continue at a school on the reservation and risk academic failure and a future of marginalization … or face cultural isolation and often bullying in a school in a local community.

Indigenous Canadians often have little trust of public schools and government officials. This is unsurprising. Residential school systems that remained in operation until the 1970s separated indigenous students from their families and communities, forcibly cut them off from their mother tongues and cultural practices, and often subjected them to abuse – giving rise to  “lingering pain” among those who endured these policies, including teachers, parents and band leaders.

The most isolated schools with the greatest challenges find it difficult to secure funding, but money isn’t the only issue. Some reserve schools receive as much per capita funding but are unable to take advantage of economies of scale in the same way as larger provincial schools. Rather, governance is central to the debates on how best to educate Alberta’s indigenous students. Although the federal government returned control over schools to bands (the primary unit of First Nations government) more than 20 years ago, Ottawa continues to fail to provide the administrative and technical support and supervision required to re-establish and strengthen the system. And unlike in other provinces, Alberta bands have yet to organize an umbrella group to develop curriculum and certify schools, and there is no reserve school teachers’ association. Local band politics often dominate.

But there are tales of success in Alberta, including First Nations students who overcame years of discrimination and poor quality education to achieve doctorate degrees, and are now contributing to improvements for today’s students.

At the school level, highly committed teachers have turned the Enoch First Nation’s Kitaskinaw School around in terms of attendance and reading levels. Here, ‘innovative finance’ takes a unique form – recycling profits from band-run casinos into schools. Student-focused programmes and permanent contracts for teachers have helped Ermineskin Junior-Senior High School improve graduation rates and demand for places among parents. One band is electing its first-ever school board, while three others are sharing a Cree language specialist to train teachers and an educational psychologist.

Let’s hope these successes will be built on. Meanwhile, the apartheid of reserve schools remains a shameful inequity amid prosperity, writes Paula Simons, an Edmonton Journal columnist.



  1. Thank you for your article. It is important to highlight marginalized populations within weathly countries. Access to quality education would seem to be plentiful in certain countries. However, many are on the fringe looking at at possiblities unrealized.

  2. Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper reports that First Nations groups in three provinces have announced that they will not participate in the national panel on education established by the federal government and the Assembly of First Nations to look at ways to improve the outcomes for children attending on-reserve schools.



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