CIC - Winter 2022

Graduation: Not What It Used to Be

In this article I want to discuss procrastination. Just kidding, I will get to that later. Instead, I’d like to look at a few different aspects of graduation and how this rite of passage has a different level of magnitude for many of the First Nations, Métis, and Inuit (FNMI) students on Turtle Island. We will delve into some of the variables that seem to hold FNMI students back from graduating high school in significant numbers and how levels of success are viewed in some Indigenous communities, and I’ll also share some perspectives about my time teaching in predominately First Nation communities in Ontario and Quebec.

To start off, it’s not all doom and gloom, folks, although it might look to be somewhat discouraging. According to data from a 2018 report by Indigenous Services Canada, fewer than 4 out of 10 of youth on-reserve graduate high school with their grade 12 diploma in hand on time, typically around the age of 17 or 18. This is compared to the 9 out of 10 non-Indigenous students who complete high school when most of Canadian society has agreed that they should. Similarly, another 2018 report by the Auditor General’s Office also indicated that even when regional variations are factored for on-reserve high school graduation rates, it was still significantly lower at 24%. Their non-Indigenous counterparts are graduating at 87%. This stat for on-reserve graduation rates is an interesting aspect to consider in the current context of Indigenous secondary education. Although Residential Schools with their appalling track record were abolished and the last one closed in 1996, many FNMI students living in remote, isolated regions of Canada still don’t attend secondary school in their own communities. They must leave their families, language, culture, and connection to the land along with their support networks to get a basic education where they are now boarders or billeted. One could assert that this is a similar concept with similar outcomes. Even my home community of Six Nations of the Grand River, located in southern Ontario with one of the largest First Nation populations in the country, sends all but a few of its high school students off reserve to get their secondary school education. Seems ridiculously unnecessary to me but that’s politics, I guess. Here are some facts that might or might not surprise you about the Indigenous student experience in Canada

  • Indigenous students are less likely to graduate high school and have lower rates of receiving the highest educational credentials (bachelor’s degrees and above)
  • Indigenous women are making strides into accessing those higher levels of education, with more Indigenous women going on to college/CEGEP and bachelor’s degrees
  • The gap between unemployment rates of Indigenous peoples and non-Indigenous people shrinks with higher levels of education
  • Indigenous women tend to have lower unemployment rates than Indigenous men, but this gap decreases with higher levels of education achieved by men
  • The median income of Indigenous women is less than the median income of Indigenous men with the same educational level

During my stint as a teacher in the north along the Quebec side of James Bay, the Cree students I taught were graduating, but it was often late. Typically, in Quebec, high schoolers enter CÉGEP after Grade 11 or Secondary 5, when they are 16 or 17 years old. Where I was a teacher, most of the high schoolers graduated late, around the ages of 19 or 20. Some might not fully grasp the nature of the relationship that Quebec has with FNMI communities or the realities of the many varying impediments to education and the resulting outcomes in many of the isolated Indigenous communities in that province. Although this is a snapshot of one region, the Cree Nation of Eeyou Istchee, “Our land — Eeyou Istchee” which means The People’s Land, comprises eleven Cree communities and over three hundred “traplines,” or traditional family hunting and trapping grounds. All my students spoke Cree as their first language with English not far behind and French a very distant third place. We also had around a hundred Inuit families in this community of about 5000 people.

For those unaware, CÉGEPs  are publicly funded colleges that provide technical, academic, and or vocational programs; they are exclusive to the province of Quebec’s education system. Although all colleges in Quebec are colloquially referred to as CÉGEPs, only public colleges are officially referred to by that name. They are often compared to junior colleges or community colleges but differ from them because to get into university in Quebec students need a Diploma of College Studies (or Diplôme d’études collégiales, DEC) unless a student enters as a mature student, which typically means a minimum age of 21, combined with other requirements. Unless their high school diploma was earned in another province or country, post-secondary students in Quebec usually can’t enter university with only a secondary diploma.

Pre-university programs are typically two years in duration, filling the gap between secondary school and undergraduate degrees, which are both one year shorter in Quebec relative to elsewhere in Canada. Technical programs are typically three years in duration, with specialization in courses leading to a career right after graduation. Depending on the university, students with DEC diplomas from a technical program can continue their studies at a university for higher qualification. The purpose of a separate collegiate education level is to make post-secondary education more accessible in Quebec. The theory is that it also ensures that students have a proper academic preparation to succeed at university. There are both public subsidized and private colleges, with the public CÉGEPs having little or no tuition fee.

Across the country, not all communities collect and provide the same type of reporting data; this makes it difficult to confirm areas of study for those that go on to post-secondary education. But it’s true that absenteeism plays a significant role in delayed graduation at all levels. This can be split into two types of absenteeism: those caused by things deemed traumatic and those that could be considered non-traumatic. I’ve defined absenteeism as the habitual pattern of absence from school caused by events and circumstances that typical students from the community where I taught encountered.

  • Non-traumatic absenteeism causes:
    • Hunting, fishing, trapping seasons
    • Family or ceremonial time on the land
    • Sibling and elder care
    • Don’t like the teacher / subject
    • Trips outside of the community for healthcare, sporting events, shopping, or entertainment
    • Functionally illiterate in multiple languages – they feel defeated and discouraged
    • Peer pressure to skip classes or school
    • Haven’t mastered intrinsic motivation for learning
    • Don’t understand the value of education and what additional qualifications determine for future possibilities
    • Tremendous autonomy at a very young age
    • Social media – late night scrolling, false perception of reality
    • Video Gaming
  • Traumatic absenteeism causes:
    • Bullying
    • Lack of proper seasonal clothing
    • Food insecurity
    • Overcrowded housing – generally poor housing conditions
    • Transient parent or family
    • Addiction issues of either the parent and or the student
    • Teen parenthood
    • Abuse

You might be wondering, “Well, what’s happening here?” Everyone gets on and off the struggle bus daily. I’m not against empathy; but unchecked empathy can be challenging. I’ve always contended that it’s not about who can sing the saddest song the longest, because do you know who cares less about your struggles than you? Everybody. What I mean by that is it’s great to be empathetic towards your child who is afraid of the dark, but not so empathetic that you are also afraid of the dark. It’s more about taking the time in the moment to pause, to consider that graduation is more than getting a piece of paper. It’s a ticket to someplace special.

Graduation isn’t just an album by Kanye. “Degree” and “graduate” come from “gradus”, meaning “step”. This passage of time, growth, and development of any sort is more than passing with good grades. For many FNMI students and their families, it’s connected to the healing of the community. By understanding the healing that needs to happen means that we can move to what comes next: the future! Optimism about one’s possibilities and one’s future creates more optimism in a knock-on effect, where young students see their parents get qualifications around their potential career. They too buy into the levels of success that come with post-secondary qualifications and lifelong learning. Pessimistic doubts caused by any one of a series of unfortunate events builds on feelings of powerlessness – feelings which can turn into cynicism. This cynicism can be felt both by students and by their teachers, who are often working and learning in survival mode. It’s felt by the students and the teachers who are often working and learning in survival mode. Oftentimes it’s just too much to bear, so absenteeism and other far more problematic ways of dealing with these feelings creep into that space.

There are many reasons why graduation is no longer what it used to be. It seems like an easy enough statistic to quantify. However, the variables that impact and create those stats which are promulgated by the various provincial ministries of education can be misleading. High school has become more open and accepting of many different cultures and groups. Back in the day when they used chalk on green boards the only other language option, I had starting in Grade 5 and then in high school was French. Today, in my community, students can learn Mohawk and Cayuga which can also be taken as credits in high school. Even the polytechnic on 6 Nations offers a Bachelor of Arts in Ogwehoweh Languages (BAOL). It’s a fully accredited (general three-year) undergraduate degree focusing on Mohawk or Cayuga languages. MacMaster University in Hamilton offers credits in Anishinaabemowin. Can you sense the healing? Can you see the connections? Non-linear progression seems to be the norm, where the pressure of graduating on time and leaving high school before you turn 20, going to post-secondary immediately afterwards, then starting a career right away isn’t as prevalent.

In most FNMI communities, multigenerational families under one roof are the norm, not the exception, with a wider variety of home life settings being taken into consideration as the students have different responsibilities to factor into their school life. School boards now seem to be attempting to meet the students where they are in their life situation since awareness of this issue isn’t in the shadows as much. Previous standards of “shut up more, sit still longer, and work harder” seem less prevalent. With recent advances in tech and connectivity, students can expand their horizons a bit more easily in a variety of subjects via multiple ways. Online learning, which was not as prevalent or viewed as a valued and viable option before, has become a contributing factor in advancing FNMI students’ chances of pursuing different levels of education. There has been a dramatic increase in the number of programs available with varying levels of certification one can achieve and acquire. Micro credentials and so many more ways of learning are available via many different platforms and providers who are also starting to partner with more Indigenous organizations, communities, and school boards to get more folks off the struggle bus.

There is of course no doubt that the world of post-secondary education has changed and continues to evolve with more input from a more diverse range of administrators and student bodies. Having a bachelor’s degree and graduating from university used to be the end of the educational journey, but for several years now, it’s been established as just the beginning. Basic post-secondary qualifications must almost be considered like being the new high school diploma. For many FNMI folks, this can be somewhat problematic, since we are already behind the curve for attaining the lowest rung of the educational ladder.

Another issue that must be considered as more Indigenous students make their way on to the pathway to post-secondary credentials is that now they have the added aspect of being required to have the traditional piece of paper with a degree as well as a deeply rooted understanding of their culture, language and ceremony often associated with a connection to their ancestral community. Indigenous students often seem to have more hoops to jump through than a hoop dancer. Of course, there are some amazing young people standing on the shoulders of giants who, in addition to graduating with an MA or MSc, are also joining and connecting with more and more ceremony, language, and the land associated with their once hidden and outlawed history. For example, the Sun Dance ceremony has become part of Indigenous students’ overall graduation formalities for the first time. The Sun Dance was forbidden under the Indian Act of 1895, but this ban was generally ignored and dropped from the Act in 1951. The church had a strong influence on it still being hidden away for generations. During the Sun Dance ceremony, participants fast from food and water before joining in dances and singing songs passed down through many generations. There is a traditional drum, a sacred fire, praying with a ceremonial pipe, and tobacco, sage, and cedar. Sometimes while participating in the ceremony there is piercing of skin and a trial of physical endurance. More healing, more relationship with tradition – but now it’s connected to graduation and education. It builds on motivation and emotion within the nation.

Now, graduation is more than merely advancing in life; it’s moving beyond ticking a box for something we’ve accomplished in life. It’s not only about doing something that many would describe as the morally correct thing to do, but also about doing something that fiscally conscious folks would suggest makes good economic sense. When nearly 90% of Indspire’s Building Brighter Futures scholarship and bursary recipients find employment and 45% of those FNMI post-secondary graduates return to work in their home communities, it increases the economic stability and wellbeing of individuals, of families, of communities – and, ultimately, of Turtle Island a.k.a. Canada. For many people, they don’t do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do; they do it for the right price. For FNMI folks like me, the price is comfortably walking in both worlds by acknowledging what was lost while embracing what unique future lies ahead…because graduation isn’t what it used to be.


Mike Hager belongs to the Bear Clan of the Mohawk Nation. Growing up, he spent time living on the family farm on 6 Nations of the Grand River and in the nearby town Caledonia. His alma mater is the University of Guelph where he got his honours BA in history with a double minor in Criminology and Sociology. Mike was also student athlete playing on the football, rugby, and wrestling teams. While deciding about the pursuit of graduate studies in history, Mike helped coach the Gryphon women’s rugby team to winning seasons back to back while he received his Indigenous focussed BEd to teach in the Primary/Junior levels from Brock University. 

After graduating from Brock, he taught in the Mohawk Immersion sector of a new primary school for 2 years on 6 Nations of the Grand River before heading to New Zealand to play rugby and teach in Rotorua. Initially it was meant to be a one-year adventure. It became a 10-year exploration of the South Pacific that ended with his New Zealand citizenship and the opportunity to work in England for a New Zealand software development company and furthering his rugby career while based in Manchester.

Eventually, Mike found his way back to Canada and back to teaching. This new venture took him to the James Bay Eeyou School in northern Quebec teaching in the Cree village of Chisasibi along the shores of James Bay. Once again, an intended one-year exploration grew into an 11-year discovery of living and teaching in the isolated north. It was here that Mike was introduced to Indspire through the Peer Support program by being a mentor for new teachers. During this position Mike was made fully aware of the many wonderful initiatives that are available through Indspire.

It was a complicated decision to leave the wonderful connections that were made in the north. He appreciated becoming a welcome member of the Cree community where hunting, fishing and 9 months of winter were big parts of his life living beside the James Bay and the big river.