A key to Abbotsford’s success in bringing Indigenous school completion rates up to record levels is promoting self-identity and culture, according to a recent high school graduate.
The 2017/18 school year saw the highest Aboriginal completion rates on record for the Abbotsford School District, hitting 80 per cent for the first time. That’s a full 10 percentage points ahead of the provincial average, at 70 per cent, according to B.C. government statistics.
But it’s also still about five percentage points below the district-wide rate of 85 per cent.
“Because I play hockey, there’s a lot of bullying for being First Nations, Aboriginal, Eastern Indian or black,” said Jaxon Orth, who graduated from Yale Secondary School in 2018.
He said the bullying makes it hard for Indigenous and other non-white students “coming out of your shell and accepting who you are.”
Orth says his attitude toward school drastically changed after he discovered more of his Aboriginal heritage. Until recently, Orth thought he was Métis, but just a few years ago his grandmother discovered the family’s heritage in the Kitsumkalum First Nation and Laxgiik (Eagle Clan) of the Tsimshian people.
“Beforehand … I’d want to sleep. I’d go home, I’d just go to my room and close the door,” Orth said. “I wouldn’t call it depressed, but it was kind of along those lines of just negative and leave me alone.”
Darlene MacDonald, district principal of the Aboriginal education program, says the research largely shows that Indigenous students tend to show improvements when they get to know their heritage, such as language and learning about their own self-identity.
“That’s where the new curriculum is a really great catalyst for us, and I think that’s why we’re seeing this improvement across the whole province, because we do have a platform, now, to bring that content into the school so that Aboriginal students have a greater sense of belonging there,” MacDonald said.
The school district also brings Indigenous elders in to talk about traumatic first-hand experiences with residential schools or the ’60s Scoop.
“Eye-opening is a good word for it,” Orth said.
He also pointed to a room dedicated to the Aboriginal education department on the second floor of Yale. There, students find a safe space to do homework, do crafts or eat lunch in peace. The room even has a therapy dog for those who may need the love of a furry friend.
“A lot of my time was spent up there,” Orth said. “I felt that it was a group of people that I can belong and I can hang out with and have everyday conversation with or have a conversation that I’ve wanted just one-on-one for emotional support or school support.”
The district has also taken a more active role in encouraging attendance among Indigenous students. Whereas previously the tendency was to suspend students for bad attendance, MacDonald said she recognizes that is counterproductive.
She said it’s also not productive to take a passive role when students stop attending, so the district has begun to meet with Aboriginal students struggling with attendance to talk about their personal barriers to attendance.
“Every student has a different scenario, and … could be related to issues of poverty or things they need to help their family with. It’s not just that they don’t want to come; there’s more to it,” MacDonald said.
Orth says he has noticed the difference since beginning to explore his heritage, and the positive effect it has had on his life showed in his report cards, as well.
“I noticed a difference in my grades and most importantly attitude. The way I go about life is a lot more different. I started wanting to learn more about my history, historical background, and more about my tribal [heritage] and stuff like that,” Orth said.
“I was a high- [to] mid-C average student, and last year I ended up on B honour rolls. I was up to high Bs in all my classes.”