By Michael Purvis
Racism, passed down over generations, still prevents native youth
from getting the kind of education they deserve, says a prominent
Ojibway educator and an early leader in the American Indian Movement.
Eddie Benton-Banai addressed teachers, principals and school
administrators from a variety of Northern Ontario boards on Thursday
as the keynote speaker for a two-day symposium hosted by Algoma
District School Board.
"I think the biggest (barrier) is long-standing stereotypes,
generational racism as well," Benton-Banai told media. "People don't
like to disagree with grandmothers, grandfathers even fathers and
moms, you know."
He told of confronting one school board in the United States on its
failure to pass any native students over a nine-year span.
"They never addressed the problem, but they came up with the classic
answers: 'Well, you know those Indians, they don't want jobs. All
they want to do is draw welfare, and the girls all they want to do is
become pregnant so they can have bigger welfare cheques,' "said
Benton-Banai. "Those were the answers from white, civilized,
well-educated school boards."
"That wasn't true then, and it's not true today. . . . So those of
you in education: deal with those stereotypes that you have been
given from your parents and your grandparents," he said.
Benton-Banai pointed to another barrier, an overwhelming North
American mainstream culture that is fortified by religion and
politics, and to the "continuing exclusion," of other cultures from education.
There should be "curriculum about other people, not just about native
people, but about other people. We don't know enough about each other
and I think that's a big barrier," he said to reporters.
The government is working to correct those issues, said Education
Minister Kathleen Wynne, who toured local schools on Thursday and was
to address the symposium that evening.
"What I would say is, it is starting to happen in Ontario because we
do have now this aboriginal education framework; there's more funding
for native programming, and so that's the kind of work we're doing,"
said Wynne. "Are we finished? No, we've got more to do but we're off
to a good start."
Wynne said a line has been added to the funding formula, with $15
million in ongoing funding set aside for programming in aboriginal education.
Chief Lyle Sayers, of Garden River First Nation, and Chief Dean
Sayers, of Batchewana First Nation, told the symposium that
curriculum based on the history of First Nations people in this
region would go a long way toward engaging students.
Benton-Banai told the crowd that the American Indian Movement, which
gained notoriety in the early 1970s with its bold approach to
protest, "sprang to life" behind prison bars, with an idea "that we
must build our pride (that) we cannot walk around these streets or
work in these factories and work on these jobs without knowing who we are."
"From that small movement came a bigger movement that rolled onto the
streets of Minneapolis, where the police were treating native people
like the Gestapo treated the Jewish people in Germany, where every
Friday and Saturday the police wagons and trucks rolled up to any
place where Indian people congregated and threw them into the vans
and into the trucks and trucked them off to jail, week after week
after week," said Benton-Banai.
He said the resulting movement spread to other parts of the U.S. and
led to what is now known as Anishinabe education.