On the Hill – Horse and Cart

Build it and they will come. That seems to be the premise Governor General Michaëlle Jean is going on as she lobbies for a university to be built in Canada’s north.

She delivered a sharp rebuke to Ottawa recently, saying that Canada lags some 40 years behind other nations who’ve brought higher learning to northern areas.

On the face of it, her argument has merit. Rather than having northern students travel south, provide the opportunity for an education in their own communities. The adjustment to university life can be hard enough: living away from home for the first time, the new adult responsibilities thrust on those fresh out of high school. For northern students, leaving small towns or reserves to face bustling cities is often an added, overwhelming stress.

The governor general’s intentions are, I’m sure, good. But she seems to have forgotten a simple piece of logic That’s proven remarkably useful in everything from politics to farming: never put the cart before the horse.

It’s all well and good to build a university, be it an enormous, ivory-towered edifice or several satellite campuses. But with an abysmal primary education system in the north, who exactly does our GG expect to fill those university classrooms?

The lack of a decent primary education for aboriginals is well documented. According to 2006 data from Statistics Canada, a mere 15.99 per cent of aboriginals over the age of 15 attend school full-time. Of those aged 25 and over, only nine per cent have graduated from high school.

In the north, just getting kids into the classroom is a struggle. In Old Crow, YT, overall attendance sits at 13.5 per cent. In Baker Lake, NU, It’s 12.43 percent. In Iqaluit, It’s 15.71 per cent. Similar numbers exist across the north.

And for those who do make it into class, a meaningful education is often still out of reach. Innu children in Labrador are one example. As early as grade one, the majority of children begin falling behind grade and age expectations. The pattern only gets worse as they get older: as one report shows, ?66% of seven year olds were estimated to be at least one to two years behind grade level, and this pattern of decline continued to a point where 66% of 16 year olds were at least five years behind.?

That doesn’t mean they’re not intelligent. Systemic corruption, alcohol and drug issues, poverty?it all plays a part. But it does mean that the primary school system as it exists is not working, and It’s definitely not giving the vast majority of northern students the skills they’ll need when it comes to university exams, essays, or science labs.

In short, dear Governor General, It’s all well and good to provide that beautiful, sleek-coated horse for the people of the north. But if a broken cart is standing in front of it, they’re still not going to get very far.