For most communities in Canada, getting to school means taking a bus, riding a bike or walking down the street. But for the kids at the Keewaytinook Internet High School (KiHS) in Northern Ontario, all it means is: Logging on.
Before the Internet came to these kinds of remote communities, aboriginal youth had to leave if they wanted to attend high school. And while student success goes hand in hand with family and community support, this is lost when aboriginal youth are boarded at schools hundreds of kilometres away. Like many other First Nations schools, KiHS was established in part to improve education outcomes for aboriginal youth by keeping them at home. And their results can be measured in higher enrolment, retention and the number of graduates.
Many things contribute to the success of KiHS and other First Nations schools. For one, curriculums can be tailored to the needs of aboriginal students. They can, where applicable, be recast to reflect experiences in the North and to be culturally relevant.
They can also be used to preserve and promote aboriginal culture, language and identity. This has the potential to build a strong sense of self-worth in aboriginal youth which in turn can strengthen the community.
Another thing to consider is that small communities are sometimes faced with a shortage of teachers. The Internet opens up access to instructors and courses previously not available. The World Wide Web and online tools allow students to tap into expertise not found locally. For these reasons, online learning is at the same level – or perhaps higher – than in an urban context.
That said, it’s important to recognize that different First Nations schools do things differently. Yet they have common goals and outcomes: learning is being brought back to the community; aboriginal youth are remaining part of it and students are getting an education they might not otherwise have received. The beneficiaries are not only the youth and their families, but the community itself.
How so? Once they’re educated, aboriginal youth will have the knowledge, skills and confidence to fully participate in the knowledge economy. The younger generation has opportunities to get the technical savvy as well as the communications and critical thinking skills to help move their communities forward in the Information Age.
Information and communications technologies (ICTs) hold the potential for aboriginal communities to break down barriers of geography and scale and address cultural, economic and social needs. But it should be remembered that ICT is not a panacea. Success will come if the communities make choices about what they want to improve, and local people – in partnership with governments, the private sector and civil society – are active in achieving the community’s goals.
The KiHS is only one story about how possible this scenario is. The exciting part is that – as a recent Crossing Boundaries initiative, Aboriginal Voice, has shown – there are more stories like this one emerging in urban and rural aboriginal communities across Canada.
This is not to say there aren’t challenges. Poverty, substance abuse and lack of education are still major problems for aboriginal people. These issues are in many respects the legacy of a people who were excluded from the opportunities and advantages created when Canada went through its previous periods of change, colonization and industrialization.
The lesson here is that as the Information Age continues to change the Canadian landscape, Aboriginal Peoples are responding. In fact, as they gain skills, aboriginal Canadians are poised to be a positive new force in 21st century Canada. ICTs are part of a great opportunity to help Aboriginal Peoples leapfrog social, political and economic challenges to a brighter, more sustainable future, a future not only rich with opportunity but one infused with the vibrant cultures and languages of Canada’s First Peoples.
John Milloy (firstname.lastname@example.org) is MPP for Kitchener Centre and Parliamentary Assistant to the Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs in Ontario; Maryantonett Flumian (email@example.com) is Deputy Minister of Service Canada. Both are members of the Crossing Boundaries National Council (www.crossingboundaries.ca)