At left, B.C.’s Minister of Advanced Education, Skills and Training Melanie Mark meets with members of the Gwaii Trust Society’s education committee and staff in Skidegate. Minister Mark recently spent two days on Haida Gwaii to hear from local groups involved in higher learning. (Gwaii Trust Society)

Reconciliation is key to higher learning, says B.C. minister

Melanie Mark has family ties to Haida Gwaii and once lived in Sandspit, but her latest visit was a dedicated work trip.

And these days Mark has a big job to do.

First elected in 2016, the Vancouver MLA was recently appointed B.C.’s minister of advanced education — she now oversees all kinds of higher learning in B.C., from trades training to university and college programs.

With Nisga’a, Gitxsan, Cree, Ojibway, French and Scottish ancestry, Mark is also the first First Nations woman ever elected to the B.C. legislature. Three of her four grandparents had to go to Indian residential schools — at age eight, one of her grandfathers escaped the Indian agent who would have sent him there.

It all means Mark is especially committed to seeing that B.C.’s post-secondary programs serve Indigenous people.

“I’m going to use my opportunity to push the envelope on this issue,” Mark said.

“Residential schools got us into this, to where we are in society, and education is going to be the pathway forward.”

On Aug. 15 and 16, Mark met many people involved in higher learning on Haida Gwaii, from TriCorp to the Gwaii Trust Society and the Haida Gwaii Higher Education Society (HGHES). She also met elected Haida leaders from Skidegate, Old Massett, and the Council of the Haida Nation.

“I saw reconciliation in action everywhere I went,” Mark said.

At the Kay Centre, Mark learned about the HGHES, including its new Reconciliation Studies semester in Old Massett and brand-new summer courses that bring an Indigenous context to ecosystems and ecology.

Mark also met with Connected North, a Canadian organization that recently started running virtual field trips and expert Q&A’s with students at Sk’aadgaa Naay Elementary — the first B.C. school to take part in a program designed to show kids their full range of opportunities.

“There is a lot going on, a lot more than people might realize,” she said, noting that she is also working with schools, such as Coast Mountain College and UNBC to see how they are working with Indigenous and remote communities.

While she was impressed by what is happening on Haida Gwaii already, Mark also heard about “pressure points” — areas where post-secondary programs are lagging.

For a start, there is still a gap between the high school graduation rates of Indigenous and non-Indigenous children in Haida Gwaii schools, even if that gap has narrowed significantly. And at 70 per cent, the overall graduation rate for Haida Gwaii high school students was still well below the provincial average in 2017, which stood at 84 per cent.

“We’ve got to do things differently,” Mark said.

“We’ve got to move the dial on the numbers of Indigenous students graduating with their Dogwood.”

Likewise, Mark said that not only on Haida Gwaii, but also in Heiltsuk, Tsimshian, and Nisga’a territories, she has heard how too many students who go on to post-secondary programs don’t finish their diplomas or degrees.

It’s tough for anyone, but particularly Indigenous people, to leave a small, tight-knit community, Mark said, so colleges and universities need to do more to smooth that transition, including having more family-oriented housing available.

Online courses also aren’t for everyone, Mark said, after hearing from adult learners who wanted a more hands-on experience when they returned to school.

Tiny class sizes are another hurdle for colleges and universities trying to run programs on Haida Gwaii and in other remote areas. On that note, Mark heard the Gwaii Trust Society call for some Indigenous-only programs to be opened up to non-Indigenous students so they can enrol a sustainable number of students.

“We need to lean in on that,” said Mark, suggesting it’s an idea for the CHN to explore.

Mark said hundreds of thousands of jobs will be on offer in B.C. over the next decade, but four out of five will require some kind of post-secondary training.

“We have a tremendous opportunity to get people trained in those 21st century jobs,” she said.

“But if we’re going to do reconciliation in action, we need to ask communities what training is relevant.”

“The idea of telling people how to do business — those days are over.”

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