Winnipeg city council is proposing the creation of a separate school division exclusively for First Nations children in an effort to combat the city's growing rate of violent crime.
The idea is part of an anticrime strategy approved yesterday by Winnipeg city council's protection and community services committee prepared in consultation with some of the city's biggest names in business and government.
The strategy proposes the creation of a separate, publicly funded aboriginal school division, much like the one created 16 years ago for Frenchspeaking Manitobans.
"Why should aboriginal people be denied the same thing?" asked Damon Johnston, president of the Aboriginal Council of Winnipeg, at yesterday's meeting. "It can only rest in racism."
But the proposal has raised concerns that the result will ghettoize the school system.
Manitoba's Aboriginal and Northern Affairs Minister Eric Robinson said he has already experienced a segregated school system: residential schools.
"It didn't work at that time, and I don't see how it would work this time," Mr. Robinson said.
The province has often been criticized for allowing eight school boards to operate in Winnipeg, carving the city into separate school divisions where most cities just have one. And the idea for an aboriginal school board has percolated before, winning limited support among parents and the provincial government.
But Wayne Helgason, chairman of Winnipeg's Centre for Aboriginal Human Resource Development, said a school board run by First Nations with tailored language and life-skills courses could help shrink sky-high dropout rates, rebuild aboriginal culture and combat crime and poverty.
"I think it's time for the aboriginal community to reveal its capacity to manage its own affairs in a better way," he said. "There's been an educational compromise for too long that the only way to fix it is to move quickly and significantly. I think there is capacity in the aboriginal community to take this on and show success."
Organized crime in Winnipeg is believed to be a lure for young aboriginals in the province's northern reserves. It is thought that the city has the highest number of aboriginal gangs in Canada. Gangs known as the Indian Posse, the Native Syndicate and the Manitoba Warriors have been linked to the city's drug trade and recent violence.
But Ron Evans, Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, said he disagrees with the decision to include the aboriginal school system proposal among suggestions on how to combat crime in Winnipeg.
"I don't think you should connect the two of them. Crime itself stems from other things, from poverty, the dysfunction that has been placed there by the residential school system," said Chief Evans.
Ingrid Johnston, a multicultural education expert at the University of Alberta, echoed Chief Evan's comments.
"I think they've put the cart before the horse," she said. "If they had framed it by saying one of the hopeful outcomes from the creation of this system is that fewer aboriginal students might leave school early, it would have been better."
The concerns parallel those that were raised in the debate surrounding the decision by Toronto's public school board two years ago to create an Afrocentric school, which some called 1950s segregation disguised as cultural sensitivity. Some argued that separating children risks institutionalizing differences instead of bridging cultural and income gaps.
"I don't know if we want to be ghettoized as aboriginal people in our own school division," Mr. Robinson said, noting the province's goal is to boost aboriginal high school and university graduation rates.
Chief Evans disagreed, saying a focus on aboriginal history and culture would give at-risk youth a sense of place and belonging.
"It's always good that people feel like they are part of something, something that's common to them, which would be their history, their own culture, their own traditions, their languages," he said.
Proponents say a First Nations school division could provide better services to students moving to Winnipeg from northern reserves to attend high school (most reserves don't have high schools).
Winnipeg already has two aboriginal schools: Children of the Earth high school and Niji Mahkwa elementary school. It has been suggested that those schools and their funding could be rolled into a new school division, along with the millions the federal government spends every year sending children off-reserve to high school.
Supporters of the plan point to other cultural-based schools operating in the province, such as Winnipeg's Mennonite university and the Division Scolaire Franco-Manitobaine, a separate French school system with 20 schools, 4,500 students and a special funding model that could be a model for a First Nations school division.
According to the 2006 census, there were about 25,000 aboriginal children and teens in Winnipeg.
Council's committee accepted in principle the report proposing an aboriginal school board, but the idea still requires the endorsement of provincial and federal governments.