Semiahmoo First Nation drummers shared music and knowledge in a reconciliation ceremony at Semiahmoo Secondary on May 30, 2022. (File photo - Surrey Schools)

Semiahmoo First Nation drummers shared music and knowledge in a reconciliation ceremony at Semiahmoo Secondary on May 30, 2022. (File photo - Surrey Schools)

Low grad rates for Surrey’s Indigenous students point to failures of government systems: educators

57 per cent of Indigenous students graduated from the Surrey school district last year

The rate at which Indigenous students in Surrey school district are graduating is slowly increasing, but educators and an Indigenous leader are pointing to persisting issues within B.C.’s education system that continue to fail Indigenous students.

“We see the interrelationships of all these (Canadian) systems and how we aren’t served well by them. If we don’t understand how these systems fail Indigenous students and families, then we might make the mistake of blaming (Indigenous people),” said Lyn Daniels, director of instruction for Indigenous learning at Surrey school district.

At the end of the 2021-22 school year, 57 per cent of Indigenous students graduated from high schools in the province’s largest school district, Surrey, according to data presented during the regular Jan. 11 school board meeting.

The rate for Surrey Schools was lower than the provincial average of 65 per cent the same year, so bringing up the district’s rate is an ongoing goal, Supt. Mark Pearmain said during the meeting.

“When we look at why the numbers are so low, (one reason) is because there is a resistance and there is a hesitancy amongst parents to say that the mainstream education model is important,” Semiahmoo First Nation Chief Harley Chappell — who sits on the Indigenous Leadership Council — told Peace Arch News on Jan. 19.

“Our elders were forced to be afraid of education. Many of us (now) as Indigenous people, we realized we need to go get an education because an education will give me a life in the non-Native world… But when we look at the whole piece, it’s not our model so it’s hard for us.

“It’s not our model. It’s a model that was pushed on us.”

Seeing the graduation rate of Indigenous students slowly increase over the years in Surrey and the rest of the province is good, but the 57-per-cent figure still points to issues in the education system, Chappell said.

“The current education model is an assimilation process. It’s still alive and well and it’s still incorporated in our communities and in our government and that’s a problem.”

Having students feel as though they do not need to assimilate, but can be their diverse self and still be successful in education is the goal that some educators are working towards, said Annie Ohana, head of the Indigenous learning department at L.A. Matheson Secondary.

That, however, needs to come from the national system level, she added.

“Our system wasn’t built to support Indigenous students, so at the end of the day as teachers and as a system, we have to transform. It’s not broken; it wasn’t built for Indigenous people.

“We say reconciliation and we say those words but students don’t always believe it… they see the hypocrisy.”

Attendance among Indigenous students is an issue school district 36 is grappling with – one that became more noticeable once students returned to classrooms after the pandemic, said Justin Boehringer, transitions facilitator teacher for Indigenous students in the district.

In the district, of roughly 78,000 students, about 3,100 are Indigenous.

“Indigenous students are a minority in the Surrey school system… They are going to school and they don’t always see students like them. They don’t always feel that they can open up to peers who experience the same issues,” Boehringer said.

“This kind of idea of being seen or their identity being celebrated, the idea of feeling safe in a school environment, feeling supported with mental health issues in the school is something that I think could improve, and in turn, could improve attendance.”

‘Celebrate, not always commemorate’

Effective beginning in the 2023/24 school year, all B.C. students must successfully complete at least four credits in Indigenous-focused coursework in order to graduate with a high school diploma, the province announced Jan. 16.

READ MORE: Indigenous-focused coursework to be a high school graduation requirement in B.C.

The introduction of new graduation requirements to include Indigenous learning is the right thing to do, Chappell said, but teaching Indigenous culture and history in the same way the rest of the curriculum is taught would be short-sighted.

“Who of any of us as people is able to say ‘that’s an A or a B or a C’? That’s completely contradictory to a traditional knowledge and way of teaching,” he said, noting that in SFN culture, traditionally, ways of teaching and learning are adjusted to meet the needs of each individual, to mentor them in their strengths.

“Being able to incorporate that into a mainstream model may be very challenging to do. I don’t even know if we can do it. In one sense, you’re mixing apples and oranges. Can you mix apples and oranges? I think so, to an extent.”

Chappell’s concerns about how Indigenous culture will be taught was discussed with members of the district before schools went on winter break. It went well for an initial conversation, he said.

“How do we get our students so that they want to graduate? So that they can see that they have a future in general, that there’s something for them out there” when most of them don’t believe that there is, Chappell wonders.

To address that, Boehringer is involved in a program in Surrey called Windspeaker, where groups get together and go on field trips and attend conferences. It has shown success among Indigenous students, he said, because they are able to have a day “not as a minority” with other Indigenous students and teachers, including himself.

Using the knowledge learned from that program and supporting ones similar could help to bridge the gap between Indigenous students and the rest of the student population, Boehringer believes.

“A lot of what is taught in the classroom is what went wrong and why things were bad but the Indigenous culture was here before residential schools and it’s here after residential schools so learning about that is important,” he said.

Boehringer’s point was echoed by Ohana. “Celebrate, not always commemorate,” she said.

Focusing strongly on the positives of Indigenous cultures, may lead to less racism and anti-Indigenous sentiments in students’ environments – something Ohana said her students still find to be lingering.

Visiting a former residential school site and speaking with Elders about residential schools is just as important as observing a local Powwow event or other cultural celebrations that aren’t taught in classrooms, Boehringer asserts. It would improve Indigenous students’ sense of belonging in education by making them feel appreciated.

“What really needs to happen is that white-settler Canadians need to be in a position where they see value in Indigenous people as well. It can’t be only Indigenous people seeing value in Indigenous people, because then no lasting change would happen,” he said.

This is especially crucial because there are relatively few Indigenous teachers throughout the district.

“We’re missing that representation that makes a huge difference because then (it comes from) the lived experience,” Ohana said.

“Our identities are really important… As settler teachers, we don’t always understand that and we don’t know how to teach through that… We’re trying to play catch-up.”

Including more Indigenous ways of learning in education is a process that many schools in the district are on the journey for, the teacher and Chappell both said, but more strides are undoubtedly needed from provincial and national levels.


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