The Legacy of Colonialism, Discrimination, and the High Cost of Living: Areas of Improvement for the Canadian Education System

Written by Enes Gisi

Canada is a wealthy country with rich natural resources and one of the highest GDPs in the world. Behind this wealth, however, lie deep inequalities in access to quality education. These barriers to education are not always confined to school buildings, as Indigenous peoples of Canada experience the impacts of Canada’s colonial past today. Other challenges in education include sexual abuse of kids, food insecurity, and lack of housing for post-secondary students. Addressing these challenges proves difficult as the three levels of the government – federal, provincial, and municipal, are each responsible for some of them. Taking effective and quick action, however, is a challenge for the Canadian bureaucracy. Government levels sometimes pass the responsibility for an issue back and forth, causing confusion among Canadians about who is responsible for what.

Children at Fort Simpson Indian Residential School holding letters that spell “Goodbye,” Fort Simpson, Northwest Territories, 1922. Photo by J. F. Moran. Library and Archives Canada on Wikimedia Commons.

Access to Education for Indigenous Peoples of Canada

To understand why the Indigenous education system is especially troubled, it’s essential to investigate the historical injustices they suffered. Indigenous peoples (also referred to as “Aboriginal peoples”) are native to the land that we today call Canada. The colonization of the land began in the 16th century with the arrival of British and French colonizers. Indigenous peoples were called “savages” and were believed to be “less civilized” than the European Canadians (“Lower Education”, 2023). Beginning in the early 17th century, various forms of schooling systems were set up (Gordon & White, 2014). The first systems created by the French settlers aimed to “Francize” the Indigenous peoples. While the British settlers initially formed alliances with the Indigenous peoples against the French and the Americans, later their policy shifted towards the same goal: “civilizing” them. Until 1951, Indigenous children were forcibly separated from their families and placed in residential schools, where they were prohibited from speaking their native languages and practicing their cultures, all to “reclaim” them from “a state of barbarism” (Wilson,1986, p. 66, as cited in Gordon & White, 2014). They received low-quality education and experienced physical, emotional, and sexual abuse (White & Peters, 2009 as cited in Gordon & White, 2014). When they returned home, they could no longer connect with their families or the non-Indigenous society (“What Is The Root Cause Of Indigenous Education Issues”, 2015). The last residential school was shut down in 1996, but the legacy of colonialism and negligence on the part of the federal government are still affecting Indigenous children.


Indigenous people experience a significantly higher rate of homelessness compared to the Canadian average (“Inadequate Housing And Crowded Living Conditions”, 2023). However, the issue of inadequate housing may have a closer connection to student success. Nearly 25 percent of Indigenous children under the age of 15 live in low-income households, which is double the percentage for non-Indigenous children (“Inadequate Housing And Crowded Living Conditions”, 2023). One implication of this situation is that some families are residing in homes that are too small for their needs. Indigenous students living in overcrowded houses may not get enough sleep and be able to study or do their homework in a quiet space. These, in turn, may impact their mental health, school success, and secondary education and employment prospects.

Graduation rates

The rate of high school completion of Indigenous children living on reserves, land reserved exclusively for the First Nations people, is low at 24 percent. This number was initially misrepresented by the Canadian government when it published a report presenting the rate as 46 percent (Coates, 2022). This calculation didn’t account for the students who had dropped out between grades 9 and 11. According to a report by the Auditor General of Canada, the Canadian government had also neglected its reporting responsibilities concerning Indigenous education, reporting on only 6 out of the 23 education results it had committed to report on (Office of the Auditor General of Canada, 2018).

While Indigenous children living off-reserve generally had better educational prospects compared to those on-reserve, their graduation rate from off-reserve provincial schools was still lower than that of non-Indigenous children. According to a 2021 report, the rate of on-time high school graduation from provincial schools in Saskatchewan was 88.7 percent. Among these students, the on-time graduation rate of Indigenous students was 44.7 percent (Clemett, 2023).

When it comes to post-secondary education, the data also highlights disparities. First Nations people, one of the three groups within the Indigenous population, have a post-secondary completion or recent attendance to a post-secondary institution rate of 37 percent, whereas the rate for non-Indigenous individuals is significantly higher at 72 percent (Layton, 2023).

Students, a former premier of British Columbia, a former British Columbia minister, and an Indigenous leader gathered around a bonfire. Image via Flickr by @bchovphotos.

School Funding and Resources

Many Indigenous students go to school in difficult circumstances and need extra support from the education system. Most on-reserve Indigenous students are not able to continue their studies without some, in some cases extensive, school-provided support or direct intervention (Coates, 2022). In most Canadian schools, perhaps 80 percent of students can succeed without school-based services or intervention. A significant number of on-reserve Indigenous students, sometimes one in three or more, however, require extensive support from their schools to succeed.

The ability of reserve schools to provide services to their students is, however, limited due to insufficient funding from the federal government. First Nations schools receive 30 percent less funding per student compared to other schools (Dart, n.d.). This leads to one obvious thing: Indigenous children are disadvantaged. They don’t have access to as many social workers, mental health professionals, and special education instructors. Alethea Wallace, a (former) principal of the Alexis School, a First Nation school, describes how inadequate funding impacts the school (Hampshire, n.d.). She says that the school is not able to offer art, drama, and music programs due to lack of funding. It also does not have a science lab or a computer lab. Parts of the school are utilized for unrelated purposes: the library and the janitor’s office as classrooms. Kristina Alexis, a student from the school, says her classroom hosts two classes at the same time where two teachers teach different subjects. Classes are overcrowded, and most classrooms are split among two grade levels.

Evan Taypotat, a former principal of Chief Kahkewistahaw Community School, and the current chief of the Kahkewistahaw First Nation, says “The average funding for a reserve kid is about $6,800 (Dart, n.d.). The funding for a kid in Broadview, which is about 10 minutes away, is $11,000.” Federal funding increases for reserve schools are capped at an annual 2 percent, which is lower than the inflation rate in Canada. There are two main issues that Indigenous leaders are currently seeking to resolve: gaining control over how federal education funding is allocated and advocating for more funding to match the funding other schools receive. Granting First Nations control over how the money is spent may allow them to implement more culturally appropriate systems.

A student bullying a classmate who’s sitting at her desk. Photo by RDNE Stock project from Pexels.

Racism, Exclusion, and Violence in School

A comprehensive 2023 report published by Children First Canada shows that bullying and violence among Canadian children have become serious threats to children’s well-being (Children First Canada, 2023). Students avoid visiting washrooms where they would get bullied, even if it means soiling themselves. Bullying mainly occurs at school or in online environments. The report highlights that 7 in 10 students between the ages of 15 and 17 experience bullying. Violence and hate speech remain pervasive problems in school and sports settings.

Most disabled students experience discrimination and exclusion. According to a 2022 report from the New Brunswick Office of the Child, Youth, and Seniors’ Advocate, only 1 in 5 disabled students feel like they belong, and they often feel unsafe at school (“Advocate Releases Office of the Child Report, 2022). Their participation in sports is also lower compared to their peers.

Jacqueline, a Jewish-Canadian high school student in Toronto says she experiences antisemitism as some people make references to Hitler or draw swastikas (Wong, 2023). She says that these acts are seen as funny among these people. She finds the Holocaust education at school insufficient in countering the hateful content that young people share online.

Sexual violence statistics are alarming. According to the 2022 report by the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, between 2017 and 2021, “at least 548 children and youth” in kindergarten to grade 12 “experienced an act of sexual nature made by 252 school personnel”, and 38 school personnel were criminally charged for offences related to illicit digital content involving minors (Children First Canada, 2023).

Religious students from Quebec who practice their faith face a discriminatory challenge due to a directive from the Quebec Education Minister, Bernard Drainville. This directive prohibited “any practice of religious activity” in schools and other education centres (Feith, 2023). According to a legal challenge in response to the ban, Muslim students had been praying in a designated area in a school for months with no issues. The father of a Muslim student in Quebec says that his child is now forced to pray in secret, without knowing the consequences if he’s found praying at school.

Workers handling food hampers. Image via Flickr, by @bcgovphotos.

Food Insecurity

Canada is the only G7 country that doesn’t have a national school food program (Alphonso, 2023). Many Canadian students rely on food programs that are funded by provinces and charities. One in five, or roughly a million students, are receiving assistance in the form of meals and snacks. An educational assistant in an Ontario school says that some students would not be able to come to school if the school didn’t provide food hampers. The charity working with the school says the increasing demand strains their budget. Black and off-reserve Indigenous children are more likely to live in food-insecure households than their White counterparts (Children First Canada, 2023).

Post-secondary affordability

The rising cost of living is leaving university students unable to afford food and rent. More than 60% of university students reported earning less than 20,000 dollars a year, and almost 3 in 4 students (72%) reported allocating 30% or more of their income to paying rent (Cameron, 2023). Centre for Addiction and Mental Health states that there’s a “critical” lack of affordable housing in Canada (“Housing and Mental Health Policy Framework”, 2022). Mateusz, a University of Calgary Student’s Union representative, says that the university is being irresponsible by admitting too many students without supplying housing (Tran, 2023). He says that rents are skyrocketing and argues there’s a housing crisis (Kaufmann, 2023). There have been students who lived in their cars in Calgary due to the housing shortage, he adds. Some students were only able to find housing in remote areas, where commuting to the campus became an issue (Derworiz, 2023). In addition, two in five university students experience food insecurity, more than half of them reported they could only afford low-quality food, and 1 in 6 students said they had days where they couldn’t eat at all.

Concluding Remarks and Recommendations

Indigenous peoples’ rights are protected by international law, most prominently under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was an important step in the right direction. It was a government initiative that was mandated to collect testimonies from the victims of the Residential School System. It helped create public awareness and encouraged further action to reconcile with the Indigenous peoples. Jack Harris, a former National Democratic Party Member of Parliament, cites Canada’s poor Indigenous rights record as one of the potential reasons why Canada lost its 2020 bid for a temporary seat at the United Nations Security Council (Harris, 2020). Providing Indigenous communities with the necessary legal and material tools to offer culture-appropriate and high-quality education should be Canada’s priority.

Another significant challenge seems to be the increasing cost of living. More post-secondary students experience food and housing insecurity, two things people shouldn’t have to worry about when pursuing higher education. From students living in their cars to students living in overcrowded houses, the high cost of living in Canada is taking a toll on students’ well-being. Better student loans and grants and more student residences provided by the universities can help.

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