How Do We Move Indigenous Education Forward?

According to a report published by the Assembly of First Nations Chiefs Assembly on Education, approximately 61 percent of First Nation young adults in Canada have not completed high school. By comparison, the same is true for only 13 percent of non-Aboriginal people in Canada. 

Most experts can agree that indigenous education in Canada needs improvement. At the same time, though, there’s some disagreement about how to approach these improvements. 

Read on to learn more about the current approach to indigenous and aboriginal education (as well as the flaws in this approach). You’ll also find some ideas on how professionals can come together to better support indigenous youth and give them the tools they need to succeed now and in the future.

The Current State of Indigenous Education

Before we explore the specific issues affecting indigenous students in Canada, it’s important to have a clear understanding of the current state of education. Outlined below are some key statistics for educators, parents, and advocates to keep in mind:

Early Childhood Education

Early childhood education plays a crucial role in setting young students up for lifelong learning and a long-term commitment to their education. Without adequate early childhood education, the chances of a child dropping out of school before graduation increase dramatically. 

The same report linked above from the Assembly of First Nations indicates that only 22 percent of First Nations children have access to early childhood education programs. This is the case even though 67 percent of Canada’s First Nations communities have licensed programs in place for children aged 6 and under. 

Long waitlists are one of the main contributors to a lack of early childhood education access. Many indigenous children are waitlisted and can’t get into quality programs, which puts them at a disadvantage early on in their learning careers.

Elementary and Secondary Education

Adequate learning from elementary and secondary schools is also a key to moving indigenous education in the right direction. 



Currently, there are hundreds of First Nations elementary schools and secondary schools available on reserve lands throughout the country. The majority of indigenous students attend these schools, while slightly less than one-third attend off-reserve provincial schools and a small percentage (around 5 percent) attend private or federal schools. 

Many indigenous children begin their education at an on- or off-reserve elementary school, but few make it through secondary school to graduation. Current data shows that the First Nation graduation rate is about 36 percent. In comparison, the Canadian graduation rate is about 72 percent.

Special Needs Placement in Elementary and Secondary Schools

It’s worth noting that the special needs identification and placement rates are 2-3 times higher in First Nations elementary and secondary schools than they are in provincial elementary and secondary schools. 

Many parents and education experts have expressed frustration with these kinds of labels and placements, arguing that students are not being evaluated fairly or given the tools they need to succeed in school. This, in turn, can exacerbate dropout rates.

Post-Secondary Education

With a lower-than-average dropout rate, it stands to reason that fewer indigenous students (compared to other Canadian students) would go on to obtain a university degree. 

Only about 4 percent of on-reserve indigenous people, and 8 percent of indigenous people, total, have a university degree. By comparison, 23 percent of Canada’s population has a university degree.

Flaws in Current Teaching Methods

Based on the data shared above, it’s obvious that indigenous students are at a disadvantage compared to provincial Canadian students. 

How did these education statistics come to be, though? What are the flaws in Canada’s current approach to indigenous education?

Lack of Funding

One of the biggest contributors to the achievement gap between indigenous students and other Canadian students is a lack of funding. 

Yes, there are hundreds of on-reserve schools throughout Canada. However, this doesn’t mean that these schools receive the same funding or resources as the country’s provincial schools. 

A new report revealed that the funding gap currently sits around 30 percent for First Nations schools compared to other Canadian schools. Evan Taypotat, who is the principal of Chief Kahkewistahaw Community School, explained that funding for a “reserve kid” is about $6,800. Meanwhile, a student living in Broadview, about 10 minutes away from the Chief Kahkewistahaw Community School, is around $11,000. 

From insufficient funding for books and technology to a lack of resources needed to pay teachers appropriately, indigenous schools face a lot of challenges in just keeping their doors open and providing students with a place to learn. This, in turn, holds students back in many cases from receiving the instruction and support they need.

Lack of Readiness

When they’re faced with insufficient funds and resources, indigenous schools and school children also find themselves faced with a lack of readiness. 

These students often fall behind their provincial counterparts and have a hard time gaining the skills they need to pass standardized tests and assessments. Not only do they fall behind but, unless someone intervenes and can dedicate the necessary time and resources to get them up to speed, they also stay behind. 

Eventually, students may be so frustrated with how far behind they are that they drop out altogether.

Lack of Understanding

A lack of understanding can also preclude indigenous students from getting the funding and support they need. When educators and government officials don’t know the state of on-reserve schools, or when they don’t take the time to learn about the concerns indigenous children’s parents have regarding their education, the likelihood that those children will thrive and succeed decreases. 

Many parents of First Nations students have expressed fears that their children are not developing a positive sense of identity in school. They also have concerns that the curricula don’t accurately reflect their children’s true history, their diverse cultures and languages, and the unique contributions indigenous people have made to Canada. 

These fears are understandable and valid. In some cases, they keep children out of school altogether. When educators and administrators don’t take the time to hear and understand these worries, they hold indigenous students back and prevent them from making the achievements of which they’re capable.  

A New Approach to Indigenous Education

The problems with indigenous education in Canada are fairly obvious. The solution is a little less clear, though. 



The following are some of the most frequently suggested steps professionals in Canada can take to address the education gaps for indigenous students:

Increase Funding

One of the first steps to moving indigenous education forward is addressing funding discrepancies. 

It’s no secret that First Nations schools do not receive the kind of funding that provincial schools receive. However, many officials are unaware of how severely underfunded indigenous students are. 

By providing additional funding to these schools, governments can play a key role in closing the gap and helping students gain the resources they need.

Address Poverty in Indigenous Communities

Poverty in indigenous communities also plays a role in the achievement gap between indigenous students and other Canadian students. 

Approximately 1 in 4 First Nations children live in poverty. Food insecurity is also a serious issue for nearly half of all reserve residents. Almost half of all First Nations households do not have internet connections, either. By addressing poverty and the situations that hold students back from performing to the best of their abilities in school, there is more room for them to get caught up and continue making progress.

Listen to and Address Parental Concerns and Mistrust

Parents’ concerns and mistrust need to be taken seriously. If parents do not feel heard and feel that their worries about their children are being dismissed, they’ll be less likely to keep their children in school (or encourage them to stay as they get older). This, in turn, further exacerbates the achievement gap.

Improve Teacher Training

One way for educators and administrators to support parents and validate their concerns is by improving teacher training for reserve teachers. If teachers are given the education needed to ensure they’re offering robust lessons regarding indigenous traditions, practices, and contributions, then parents may be more inclined to trust the schools and feel confident that their children are safe while attending them.

Support Grassroots Organizations

In addition to rallying for increased government funding, those who have concerns about indigenous education can also support grassroots organizations that are working hard to provide additional funding and support for indigenous students. 

These organizations can do a lot of things to get money directly to the students who need it, including buying equipment and donating it to the school. 

Some organizations also aim to address poverty in indigenous communities, specifically. By supporting these groups, education advocates can help to combat issues like lack of internet access or food insecurity, which frees children up to focus more on their education.

Improve Education for Indigenous Students Today

As you can see, many strategies can be implemented to improve education for indigenous students in Canada. Educators should keep this information in mind so they can begin making plans for their students and setting them up for long-term educational success.