Genuine community ownership of Northern education: From theory to practice

Donald J. Taylor, Roxane de la Sablonnière, & Laura French Bourgeois

When it comes to formal education in the North, policy makers, education authorities, principals, and teachers exude a new-found energy rooted in hope and optimism: And, no wonder. Empowerment and decolonization have led to a genuine paradigm shift that is quickly changing the education landscape. More and more Inuit education is being wrestled from southern imposed institutions, structures and curricula to an education system that is controlled by and for Inuit and Northern communities.

As evidence-based, theoretically driven social scientists, who have taught and researched across the North, we too are caught up in the excitement. Our mission is aimed at addressing a thorny problem: school attendance and dropout rates have been, and are, unacceptably high. School attendance issues can be best illustrated by recent research by Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami which reveals that elementary school students are missing, on average, 41 school days a year (CBC News, 2013). This number adds up year after year so that by the time these students reach high school they have missed a full two years of formal education. Issues surrounding school attendance become even bleaker as students progress through their education with high school dropout rates rising to 75% or higher (ITK, 2011). These rates stand in stark relief compared to the 15% dropout for non-Aboriginal youth (ITK, 2011).

To address school attendance issues in Inuit communities, an Inuit-controlled education system and curriculum is a critical first step, but it won’t be enough. The only hope for an Inuit-based curriculum to succeed is if students are in school “all day, every day, well rested, well fed and eager to learn.” Even the best Aboriginally-based curriculum will fail unless there are motivated students in the classroom.

The issue of school attendance has proven to be a persistent problem for Northern education. The stubbornness of the attendance issue points to a fundamental psychological divide between Inuit communities and the school, and all that the school stands for in the community. Addressing this persistent issue will require entirely rethinking our understanding of the roots of academic underachievement in Aboriginal communities.

We begin by asking “What is the vision that has guided, and continues to guide, Inuit education moving forward?” Our analysis is that the current vision for Northern education is based on an incomplete rationale that can only lead to disappointment and continued academic underachievement for Inuit students.

We offer here a theoretical alternative that points in a different direction, one that doesn’t compete with, but rather complements, the current vision (Taylor & de la Sablonnière, in press). We argue that because colonization had a devastating impact on all facets of Inuit life, colonization can best be understood as an attack on Inuit cultural identity. Colonization, most would agree, cast a wide net, impacting not merely one or two aspects of Inuit life, but the entire family, social, economic, educational and spiritual life of Inuit, the entirety of Inuit cultural identity. Thus, we frame the concrete challenge of school attendance in the broader context of ruptures to cultural identity. We believe this cultural identity focus can serve as a guide for policy makers, education authorities, schools, and classroom teachers to design practical interventions for addressing the school attendance issue.


The Current Incomplete Vision

What is the current, mostly southern, vision for Inuit education that we argue is incomplete? The guiding principal is quite simply that the long-standing academic underachievement of Inuit students is the result of a “cultural mismatch.” Colonialism, it is agued, has involved imposing southern, dominant Canadian culture in terms of formal education on Inuit communities that are culturally very different. The solution from this perspective is to decolonize the process and make Inuit education a culturally relevant enterprise with education evolving into one that is designed and delivered by Inuit, for Inuit, students. This means wholesale changes in structure and curricula designed to be culturally relevant for Inuit students.

Photo credit: Amaujaq National Centre for Inuit Education.

Photo credit: Amaujaq National Centre for Inuit Education.

While not disagreeing fundamentally with this view, we offer an alternative to the “cultural mismatch” assumption that guides all current initiatives in Northern education. Our starting theoreticalpremise is that the heart of the challenge is not a “cultural mismatch” but rather the collective trauma arising from colonization’s attack on Inuit identity (Taylor, 2002). Colonialism did not merely traumatize specific aspects of Inuit culture, it negatively impacted the entire structure of Inuit culture and identity. No stone was left unturned such that Inuit worldviews, goals, beliefs, attitudes, norms, symbols and “ways of life” were forever compromised (see Figure 1). We argue further that explicit southern Canadian attempts to assimilate Inuit were disingenuous. While Inuit were forced to confront the colonizer’s institutions and ways of life, the deep structures of European culture were not willingly shared. That is, only the superficial trappings of European culture were forced on Inuit, but not the underlying values and goals, including the meritocratic building blocks of European culture. The end result is that for present day Inuit, forging a clear cultural identity is a major challenge.

King (2012), the noted Aboriginal author, with his usual irony, paints the same picture for First Nations people. He argues that there are only “dead Indians” no present day Indians. His point is that any time First Nations people are evoked in public discourse, all forms of media or symbolic display (e.g., Vancouver Olympics), it is always a depiction of an Aboriginal person or symbol from prior to European colonization. There is, King (2012) notes, no possibility to depict modern First Nations people because there are no present-day First Nations cultures to present. Our argument is that the lack of present-day clarity in Inuit culture or cultures is precisely because colonization completely destroyed these cultures.


The Consequences of a Less Than Clearly Defined Cultural Identity

When a group is struggling to recarve a new and clearly defined cultural identity, the psychological consequences for each and every member of the group are profound. For groups who have a clearly defined cultural identity, that identity serves as a guide and reference point in terms of values, goals, beliefs, and behaviours for every group member(Taylor, 2002). So, by way of example, if a group values education as a priority goal, then the group will promote education, reinforce education, offer mechanisms to achieve education, and like Canada, may even make school attendance a law. This does not mean that every group member will diligently pursue education: Some will choose not to, and others may not have the ability. But every group member will know that education is valued is rewarded and there will be well-defined concrete pathways for achieving education.

Figure 1 — Factors leading to collective community challenges

Figure 1 — Factors leading to collective community challenges

If a cultural group does not have the benefit of a clearly defined identity, there are no clearly defined valued goals, and pathways to guide group members. This is the worst possible psychological state for an individual. To emphasize this point, much is written about the cultural adjustment required of newly arrived immigrants to Canada (Amiot, de la Sablonnière, Terry, & Smith, 2007). Their task is a formidable one as they juggle their heritage culture and their new Canadian culture, with a view to internalizing a functioning identity for themselves. Not to underestimate their challenge, but at least they are juggling two relatively clearly defined identities, and wrestling with resolving points of discontinuity between the two.

By contrast, Inuit were robbed of their clearly defined cultural identity through colonization. And that leaves Inuit in a devastating psychological state: resolving competing guidelines is difficult enough, having no clear guidelines is an even bigger challenge.


Cultural Identity and Longterm Goals

Cultures provide group members with a host of guideposts including values, beliefs, norms, attitudes, and behaviours (Taylor & de la Sablonnière, in press). But one guidepost is especially important: long-term goals. Cultures provide group members with the long-term goals that they should strive for, the goals that are so important that group members need to make great sacrifices to achieve them. Longterm goals such as formal education and training, and equity-based lasting human relationships are two culturally prescribed long-term goals that may be familiar to all Canadians.

The long-term goals prescribed by a culture are extremely demanding in terms of self-regulation, and that is why cultures go to such great lengths to foster them. To succeed at a long-term goal such as education, the student must forego immediate gratification in support of long-term success. The successful student will need to study for the exam, go to bed at a reasonable time in order to be focused the following day, and must follow a healthy diet. This means the successful student must forego the immediate gratification of alcohol, drugs, and risky sexual behaviour in order to get ahead in the long-term (Moffitt et al., 2011). The exercise of self-control or self-regulation is no easy task and thus a clearly defined cultural identity with clearly defined long-term goals is essential to guide the self-control of group members.

Inuit are now beginning to engage the task of defining the culturally valued long-term goals that are necessary to guide and regulate the behaviour of group members. In terms of formal education and training this means the long-term benefits of education are not, as yet, clearly and consensually enough defined (widely defined and accepted) as an essential, culturally defined long-term goal. If a culture does not put a collective and clearly defined premium on formal education and training, why would a person pass up the opportunity for immediate pleasure to attend, study, and work hard at school?


Cultural Identity and Community Normative structure

The final link in our theoretical chain involves examining the impact that a less than clearly defined present- day identity, with its lack of prescribed long-term goals for education, has on the normative structure of Inuit communities, schools and classrooms (Taylor & de la Sablonnière, 2013). The end-result of these fallouts from colonialism are communities that face a challenge in terms of normative structure.

For any group, be it a community, a school board,a particular school or a classroom, to succeed, every group member must contribute. Winning hockey teams, successful businesses, efficient public services, and education districts and successful classrooms all require their group members to make important contributions. In reality, no group is lucky enough to have 100% of its members contributing at the highest level. For this reason, we have introduced the often evoked 80-20 rule. If at least 80% of group members are contributing positively to the group’s goals, the group has a good chance to succeed. If the number of positively contributing group members drops below 80%, say to 70% or below, then the group’s viability is seriously compromised.

An 80-20 normative structure, then, is crucial for any group’s success. That explains why groups invest so many financial and human resources to rehabilitate the non-normative 20% in the group. The 20% of youth in a society who are labeled as delinquents are singled out and receive inordinate attention from authorities including the police, social workers and the judicial system. Schools focus their attention on the 20% of students who are “trouble makers” or “misfits.” Finally, companies target the 20% of under-performing employees for attention because without them making a positive contribution the company will go bankrupt.

To date, every educational policy, program, or intervention presupposes they are working with an 80-20 normative structure. The majority of education situations in the south have an 80-20 structure, and thus it makes sense to single out the non-functioning 20% and focus resources on their rehabilitation. That’s what interventions in the south do! They single out students with learning disabilities or behavioural problems and apply specially trained personnel with state of the art intervention strategies to address the individual student’s issue.

But Inuit communities do not have the benefit of an 80-20 normative structure. Indeed, some Inuit leaders have actually described their communities and schools as 20-80, the exact opposite in terms of normative structure. As one head of department for “special education” in the north put it to us: “What do you do when every child in the school is a ‘special needs’ child, and that’s only taking into account the children who are still attending school?”

The answer to this question is that you do not continue to generate policies, programs and interventions that presuppose an 80-20 normative structure, and impose them on communities and institutions that have the inverse: a 20-80 normative structure. Put in it’s simplest terms: What Northern communities and schools face is a collective challenge and therefore collective solutions are required. When operating with a southern 80-20 normative structure, it is logical that the focus is on the minority 20% who can individually be targeted for rehabilitation. Such a focus is misguided when 80% of a group requires attention. Now you have a collective problem requiring a collective solution.


Towards a Collective Solution

We can now shift our attention to addressing the educational challenge we posed initially: How do we have schools filled with students who are well rested, well fed and eager to learn so that they can benefit from educators and a curriculum that is culturally relevant? The barriers are formidable given that within the context of current Inuit identity, formal education is not a firmly established long-term goal, and no 80-20 normative structure to work with.

First, we need a collective solution, which means we need the help of literally everyone in the community. That is, a clearly defined cultural identity that clearly defines formal education and training as one of its long-term goals requires community consensus. Second, we need to approach every community member, forming a positive basis from which to build. Finally, we need to generate a one-on-one, face-to-face meeting with every community member that is positive, constructive, and engaging. The usual practices of holding a community meeting, or presentations on the FM, or poster and workshop campaigns will not work on their own. Only one-onone, face-to-face, positive, non-threatening meetings with every member of the community will work. There are no short cuts!

We have implemented community projects to address the school attendance issue across the entire North, all involving a collective approach that implements the three features we have just highlighted. Our challenge is to reach everyone in a community involved in raising children, which is to say everyone in the community. We do this by administering a survey on education and we aim for a 100% completion rate. Such a completion rate may seem overly ambitious and unrealistic, but with dedicated community members and when the topic is of genuine community concern, 100% is not out of reach (see Taylor & Wright, 2002). Completion rates above 80% have already been achieved for a one-hour survey on education in several communities. As social scientists we help in terms of survey design, while developing the questions to ask in the survey, and achieving high rates of participation in completing the surveys is entirely in the hands of community members (Taylor & de la Sablonnière, in press).

Next, we need to focus on “positive education norms” and so included in the lengthy survey are items such as “education is important,” “the parent is the child’s first teacher” and “students perform better when they are well rested.” Despite an abysmal school attendance rate, everybody endorses these items. Now we have a positive norm that is endorsed by virtually everyone in the community.

We are now poised to have trained Inuit community members visit each and every home. The purpose of the visit is presented in the form: “We promised to give everyone feedback on the survey results. Instead of just holding a meeting, we decided to visit each of you in order to share some of the results.” Community members to date welcome these visits. At the time of the visit, each community member, in a one-toone non-threatening conversation, is confronted with a disconnect: they, like everyone else in the community believes that education is important but the children are not in school. Thus, ultimately the discussion focuses on how the community member might help resolve the disconnect, improve attendance, finishing with an agreement that the community member will be visited again in three months to share more results and strategize further. Inuit community members in one Northern village have already completed over 150 home visits and in every case there is an invitation for a second visit, underscoring the positive mood of the discussions.



Three important points need to be made about our collective strategy for constructive community change. First, and foremost, the definition of constructive change, the priorities, and issues to be addressed in clarifying a present-day cultural identity lie with Inuit communities themselves. Second, we have briefly described a collective approach to engaging community members in the support of school attendance that made use of survey techniques. But other collective techniques can be used for different groups. For example, we are currently using “daily diaries” and “written narratives” instead of surveys for high school students in Inuit schools. Every student in the class contributes a daily diary or narrative and we produce a class profile. Every student contributes to the collective class profile, but no individual student’s profile is ever revealed. The students together examine the class profile and come to their own conclusions and decisions for change. No authority tells the students what to conclude. They decide on what positive norms to enhance and which destructive norms they might tackle. All our interventions are collective in the sense that the ultimate goal is to have group members themselves define their own group identity.

Finally, whatever form an intervention takes, we seek to have them be evidence based. That is, at each stage of the school attendance intervention we document the outcomes: respondents answer questions on the survey with standardized rating scales, home visits conclude with concrete, agreed upon goal setting in terms of promoting attendance, and ultimately actual attendance and school performance are documented. The hope, of course, is that school attendance and school attitudes will improve so that the newly developed, culturally relevant curricula will be received by a motivated audience of students. ◉

Donald J. Taylor is Professor of Psychology at McGill University.

Roxane de la Sablonnière is a faculty member at the Université de Montréal.

Laura French Bourgeois is a doctoral candidate at the Université de Montréal.


We first wish to thank our Aboriginal friends and colleagues with whom we developed the survey research intervention. We acknowledge support from the Kativik School Board, the Governments of Northwest Territories, Nunavut, and Nunatsiavut, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council as well as the Fonds de recherche du Québec-Société et culture.


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