In examining the systems that affect Aboriginal learner outcomes, it is important to understand the inconsistencies between the traditional education system of First Nations and contemporary education systems in BC and Canada, including the values that are imbedded within the respective institutions structures, systems, objectives, priorities, policies, process, and people. It is also important to recognize the role that the federal and provincial governments have played and the absence of an Aboriginal role in jurisdictional control of Aboriginal education.
Traditional Aboriginal ways of knowing, teaching, and learning came to an end when the Indian Act (1876) was passed, which placed complete control of Aboriginal politics, ethnoculture, education, and personal lives in the hands of the federal government (Mixon, 2008a, p. 11). Religious institutions were contracted by the federal government to establish residential schools and, as reported in 1971 by the House of Commons Standing Committee on Indian Affairs report on Indian education, “the missionaries and governments had failed in three hundred years to administer an effective educational program for Indians” (Indian Tribes of Manitoba, as cited in Kirkness, 1999, p. 7). Today, “residential schools are the main reason why Aboriginal people in Canada do not value higher education the way main stream Canadian society has” (Aisaican, 2001, p. 14). The legacy of this history is one of distrust within Aboriginal communities across Canada, which negatively impacts participation and graduation rates in post-secondary education for “many children [who] would have gone on to College or University if not for the residential schools” (p. 24).
Today, Canada’s post-secondary education system and institutions were developed by, and remain predominantly comprised of the dominant culture whose values are institutionalized within its structures, systems, objectives, priorities, policies, process, and people. The cultural shift required to integrate Aboriginal values within main stream post-secondary education in Canada and indigenize the culture requires the direct involvement of Aboriginal people themselves. As noted by Aisaican (2001), many Aboriginal researchers, including Battiste (2002), Cajete (1999), Stonechild (2006), and Wilson (2008), have believed that “Aboriginal people are a part of a foreign education system that trains them to become a part of a society that tends not to include them” (p. 2).
For the 62% of First Nations who comprise the Aboriginal student body of learners at VCC and all Aboriginal learners in the region, the jurisdictional responsibility for Aboriginal post-secondary education remains that of the provincial and territorial governments, which operate with no coordinated effort with the federal government. As put forward by Mayes (2007),
Education of Aboriginal learners is a matter of divided constitutional responsibility . . . [and] although education is, generally speaking, an area of provincial responsibility under the Constitution Act, 1867 (section 93), “Indians, and Lands reserved for the Indians” fall under federal jurisdiction (subsection 91(24)). The Indian Act, the principal vehicle for the exercise of this federal power, thus provides for the education of primary and secondary First Nations students who reside on reserve lands, whether the schooling takes place on- or off-reserve. (p. 23)
Therefore, nationally, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, in part through First Nation administration of funding, still provides most of the supports for First Nations learners, while provincially, ALMD is broadly responsible for higher education for Aboriginal learners, including non-status, Métis, and Inuit learners. ALMD “develops educational, professional and economic opportunities for BC’s learners by providing and supporting a wide range of post-secondary programs and encouraging relationships between educational institutions, business, and industry” (Canadian Information Centre for International Credentials, 2010, para. 3). Within ALMD, “The Post-Secondary Education Division establishes the mandate for VCC and is responsible for the “overall funding and program co-ordination for the public post-secondary education system” (Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, 2010, para. 5).
Within the delivery systems of post-secondary education, the Board of Governors (the Board) governs VCC on behalf of the Government of BC. The Board determines policy and reviews the college’s performance as outlined in the College and Institute Act (1996), Part 4, Section 19, where currently there is no Aboriginal representation. Recognizing the need for an Aboriginal voice in the delivery of post-secondary education, Merkel (2006) asserted that Aboriginal Board representation “should be worked into each institution’s policies with assistance and/or support from the Ministry of Advanced Education, . . . . [where] we need a fundamental change in understanding of Aboriginal leadership at the institution level” (p. 5).
Within all of these overlapping jurisdictions for educational control, funding, and implementation, the authority of Aboriginal peoples remains marginalized within post-secondary education systems, despite the call three decades ago for Indian Control of Indian Education (Assembly of First Nations [AFN], 2010a), which stated,
Those educators who have had authority in all that pertained to Indian education have, over the years, tried various ways of providing education for Indian people. The answer to providing a successful educational experience has not been found. There is one alternative which has not been tried before: in the future, let Indian people control Indian education. (p. 13)
This experience is not unique to Aboriginal peoples in Canada, or even the United States of America, but indeed all colonized countries around the world. Arnove (1980) posited,
To date, most macro studies of education have taken the nation-state as the basic unit of analysis. An examination of the international forces impinging upon education systems is not less essential than an examination of the international economic order would be to an understanding of the dynamics of economic development or under-development in any one country or set of countries. The relative neglect of this international dimension is rather surprising. Historically, the present education systems in many of the countries of Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Oceania are the products of past colonial penetration. Their present endeavours in education represent, in many cases, heroic efforts to come to grips with this colonial heritage: they struggle to find educational systems that will enhance national self-identity and cultural autonomy, while contributing to sustained economic growth. (p. 48)
In order to understand how these systems affect the success of Aboriginal learners at VCC, it is important to consider the specific organizational context of VCC.