A rich smell of cedar seeps through the expansive foyer of Ladysmith Secondary School.
Rough-hewn planks bound to posts form walls and floor as a traditional Coast Salish house begins to take shape around students as they pore through textbooks and chat about teenage interests.
The house will be home to a two-year education project centred around a master carver. John Marston will be adzing out a welcoming figure as the student body’s daily stream ebbs and flows around him, and he shares his wisdom with those who wish to learn.
Ultimately, the carved figure will become a token of the hospitality being offered to those who walk in the school’s front door. But the project itself — called Nutsumaat Syaays, or Working Together as One — is something more.
It is a manifestation of a welcoming process occurring behind the scenes that is quietly powering one of Vancouver Island’s most significant education stories.
In a trend being repeated in many school districts across the Island, First Nations students are graduating in numbers unheard of a generation ago.
Those close to the situation credit the steady progress to a concentrated effort to create a sense of connection and belonging that may have been lacking in the past.
“It brings our culture into our school,” Ladysmith student Brittany Elliott said.
“Our” is the possessive pronoun of choice for Elliott and her classmates Kyle Joe and Sha-lena Horne when talking to Black Press about LSS.
Members of the Cowichan and Stz’uminas First Nations, each student is actively involved in the school — be it in an academic, sports, or leadership role.
They talk quietly but with obvious affection about the classes and activities they enjoy, the teachers they like, the hum of the school’s social life and their plans after high school.
Each is also on track to graduate this spring.
According to a report commissioned for the Assembly of First Nations chiefs, Canadian indigenous students were graduating high school at a rate of about 36 per cent just seven years ago — exactly half the overall national graduation rate.
In December of 2015, the provincial government announced B.C. aboriginal completion rates had capped five years of steady improvement with a record high of 63 per cent.
The Port Alberni, Comox Valley, Qualicum and Sooke school districts all matched or exceeded the provincial rate last year. Nanaimo, Campbell River and Victoria missed the cut, dropping to 58, 51 and 60 per cent respectively, but that was after each posted rates of 64 per cent in 2014.
However, with the overall B.C. completion rate hovering at 86 per cent, there is still work to be done to close the gap.
Chris Beaton is the executive director of the Nanaimo Aboriginal Centre, an independent First Nations service and advocacy group.
“Our vision is to support the vision of 100 per cent graduation,” he said. “You’re right that it’s trending in the right direction, but there is still a long way to go. I would challenge you to find anyone who is happy with the pace.”
Beaton said schools are succeeding when they create an environment that makes aboriginal learners feel at home.
“I’m seeing an indigenization of the curriculum,” he said. “We’re not pulling four kids out of the classroom and building dreamcatchers. The curriculum is embedded into the whole student body.”
Front-and-centre in the campaign are educators like Nanaimo-Ladysmith district vice-principal of aboriginal education Anne Tenning.
According to Tenning, her district has adopted the holistic approach of making sure a First Nations perspective is addressed in every aspect of school life.
“A focus is collective responsibility,” she said. “Students receive extra support and it is everyone in the system supporting.”
Part of that is adding visible First Nations components to everyday school routines that confirm the culture’s strong presence in the greater community. This includes initiatives like verbally recognizing traditional territories at public meetings, using films, books and essays created by aboriginal thinkers and artists as resource material, and an elder-in-residence style program being piloted at Nanaimo District Secondary School.
But it goes beyond the exterior trappings and into what is actually being discussed in the classroom. The local Hul’qumi’num dialect being taught as a credit language course is a good example.
Just as significant are the serious talks taking place in class on the subject of colonialism and its effect on the indigenous population. Tenning said great effort has been made to inject First Nations issues and culture into the curriculum as living, breathing things.
“Before when we were studying First Nations people it was like we were studying people out of a museum,” she said.
The students back that up, saying their First Peoples English and B.C. First Nations Studies classes engaged them in a way previous English and Social Studies classes had not.
Joe appreciated the perspective offered on other First Nations across the country, while Elliott was interested in taking in how non-aboriginal classmates were exposed to aboriginal thinking and experiences.
One can’t discount the significance of that change. Tenning, for example, had no knowledge of residential schools until she became an adult, despite the fact her mother attended one.
“I think back to when I was in high school and it had such a small presence,” she said. “With this generation of learners it’s becoming common knowledge.”
Discussions about the residential school system may be helping today’s students engage, but the system’s legacy played a significant role in the education — or lack thereof — of their parents.
Beaton said poor experiences in the residential system embedded distrust for public education in a generation of First Nations people, which manifested itself in the way some encouraged their children. Beyond that, the fractured families the system created also took a toll.
“There’s no handbook on parenting. You learn from your role models,” he said. “My mom’s role model was not my grandmother, it was staff at a residential school.”
Tenning agreed the residential school legacy is an issue.
“That is definitely a challenge for a lot of families, rebuilding that trust,” she said. “We are inviting them into the schools, finding ways to include families. There is so much of a difference that can make, not just to aboriginal students, but to all students.”
Joe said his dad has talked to him about the racism he experienced in school, and his classmates agree that the environment today is much better for them than it was for their parents.
Instead of avoiding school, Horne and Elliott have embraced it. Each is planning to pursue a teaching degree after graduation.
Joe’s immediate priority may be different — he wants to pursue an opportunity playing rugby — but his attitude about education can be boiled down to pure pragmatism.
“School is a very important thing because you can’t get good jobs without going,” he said.
Beaton supports the work being done by local schools, but says there is another element that has to part of the solution: community support outside the classroom.
He said with only 20 per cent of a child’s time spent in the classroom, it is essential that we address what is going on in the other 80 per cent of their lives. Poverty, lack of skills training, food insecurity — getting your homework done can become secondary when your family is struggling to keep a roof over its head and food on the table.
He also stressed that education is not just a K-12 endeavour and work has to be done at the pre-school level. Free daycare with skilled early childhood educators would help tremendously.
On a more general level, Beaton supports a continued emphasis on creating a two-way street of community connection. He said there is little need for new standalone structures for Indigenous people.
Instead, the mission is to make indigenous culture an everyday aspect of the community, while at the same time making everyday aspects of the community part of indigenous culture.
He said it can be as simple as taking aboriginal kids using the Boys and Girls Club to a downtown yoga class so it feels like a natural option as they get older.
“I don’t need to build a new childcare program or a yoga studio,” he said.
Tenning said we are seeing progress in that area with an increased aboriginal presence on school clubs, teams and other initiatives.
“I think that it’s just happening naturally. Those extracurriculars are signs that they are connecting more to school,” she said.
Being able to interact with teachers and other professionals who are aboriginal matters, as does seeing aboriginals in positions of influence, like Nanaimo’s new city manager. According to Beaton, every success story can feed another.
“Every indigenous person who breaks that glass ceiling becomes a role model,” he said.
Still, change is slow, and if the goal is to reach graduation parity, Is it going to take another generation to get there?
“I hope not,” Beaton said. “The conversation is beginning and we can’t stop it. I’m confident for the first time in my life that it will happen.””