An extensive study suggests the Canadian economy is losing billions because of the high drop-out rate among young aboriginals. According to “The Potential Contribution of Aboriginal Canadians to Labour Force, Employment, Productivity and Output Growth in Canada, 2001-2017,” almost half of Canada’s Native teens do not finish high school, resulting in lifetimes of either underemployment or unemployment.

The research report was produced by the Centre for the Study of Living Standards in Ottawa. What the 180-page study boiled down to, according to co-author Andrew Sharpe, was that Canada’s GDP could balloon by $71 billion within the next decade if aboriginals had the same graduation rate as the rest of the population.

“We calculated what would be the additional income of aboriginals if they had the same educational attainment that the non-aboriginals had in 2001,” said Sharpe. “So, we are not saying that we are going to reduce the gap in educational attainment between the two groups. But, for 2017 we were just assuming that the aboriginals got the 2001 levels of educational attainment and that is a very, very optimistic assumption, it’s not going to happen.”

Harder to identify is why the high drop-out rate exists and what can be done about it.

“There is not the expectation in aboriginal communities that people will complete high school and go on to university as they would in the mainstream communities,” said Sharpe. “Also the resources, often there is not enough resources devoted to high quality schools on reserves.”

James Bay Cree communities are no exception to the high drop-out phenomenon, says Gordon Blackned, chairman of the Cree School Board. And those who do complete their secondary studies will often do so in a much longer period of time than is expected.

“Some kids are in school for five years, they go through five years of secondary. Some will do it in six years, some will do it in seven years, some do it in eight and some do it in nine,” says Blackned.

A recent CSB statistical analysis showed that, from one initial cohort of 100 students in secondary one, 12 students graduated in a period of five years, Blackned observed. In that same cohort, at the start of the sixth year, 67 of those students on average would still be in school while 21 would have quit. After nine years in secondary, of the original 100 students in the cohort, only 27 will have graduated after nine years.

On an academic level, Blackned believes that the problem starts with language, but that it’s a multifaceted issue.

“Basically I guess that it’s reading and writing and understanding the languages,” he suggested. “We have got three languages: Cree, the second language is English and then French.”

It is not only the issue of having to master three languages. “We find that the teaching of languages is one of the areas in which our teachers are lacking,” said Blackned.

Under the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, the CSB set up its own teacher training program, but when they implemented the program they did not set a time limit on it so teacher trainees could take as long as they wanted to finish the program.

“Now we have people who are still in the course after 10 or 12 years. Because their program is stretched out that long, they have lost a lot of what they have learned when they come in to a regular class. It may be the teaching of language was learned in the first two or three years of their training so by that time they have pretty well forgotten how to teach language in school. Languages are the most important thing in any school. Kids have to learn the language, the grammar, the reading, the writing. That is very important.”

The CSB teacher-training program is presently being revamped into a four-year program slated to begin next fall.

In looking for other solutions to the language issue, however, Blackned has grown frustrated.

“I have an argument that I often voice. I have been an educator for 30 years and it feels as though every time I voice this opinion it falls on deaf ears: Let’s get rid of one of the second languages; let’s stay with our language, our mother tongue, Cree, and teach only in one second language,” said Blackned.

Other problems in Cree schools include absenteeism. According to the CSB statistics, the average secondary student misses 21 per cent of class time. The bulk of these absences can be attributed to skipping, as students will sleep in without their parents noticing because they are at work.

“When you are successful at skipping one day and nobody follows up on it you go two days and three days and so on,” said Blackned. “That is the trend in our schools.”

Even those who get dropped off at school by their parents will often disappear for the day instead of going to class or cut classes randomly and hang out in the hallways. The problem is slowly being curbed by hallway monitors who try to keep the kids corralled in the classrooms, but without the participation of the parents the school can not do much about kids who won’t come to school.

Blackned also takes issue with parents who place more importance on hockey than school. Hockey tournaments mean that kids routinely miss successive Fridays and Mondays throughout the winter months to travel to games.

Though there are rules within the schools in regards to hockey and attendance, Blackned says parents do not respect them.

“If their marks are not good enough the policy states that they shouldn’t go to the tournaments, but the parents allow them,” said Blackned. “There are a lot of problems with parents and minimal parental involvement. It is something that we tried to tackle over the years and we have a difficult time trying to pinpoint ways to involve parents in the education of their children.”

The Cree Regional Economic Enterprises Council is keen to find solutions to educational attainment problems because lack of training is a big drag on the local economy. Education was a hot topic for discussion during the September 18-20 CREECO conference on the future generation of workers within the communities.

According to Rodney Hester, CREECO business development co-ordinator, Blackned is correct to pinpoint poor parental involvement in the education of Cree youth.

“As parents, there is a responsibility there to enforce and encourage, playing their role and not to just leave it up to the school to educate their children,” said Hester.

Another issue raised during the conference was the cost of dropouts from post-secondary programs.

“We invest a lot in our students’ education,” Hester observed. “We are not only paying for their tuition, books and travel but also for the staff to administer all of that. So to compound the cost and then, let’s say, we have 50 students go out and 20 decide to drop out for whatever reason after one semester, what does that cost?”