One day while i was having lunch at the Governor General's Rideau Hall residence (it's not very often I get to start a story like that), I bumped into Matthew Coon Come, Grand Chief of the Assembly of First Nations.Over cocktails he mentioned he'd heard my name, and asked what I did for a living. I briefly summed up my 15 years as an essayist and playwright. He seemed mildly impressed, then asked where I'd gone to university. My bubble burst.
I told him I'd never wandered the hallowed halls of academe and that I was a member of the great uneducated masses. Whereupon he replied: "Well, there goes that idea." What idea? I asked. He said that for a moment he'd thought I'd be a great role model for aboriginal youth. Evidently, his brainwave evaporated due to my noticeable lack of degrees.
It reminded me of a similar incident several years ago at a birthday party for a professor at York U. The slightly tipsy birthday boy, who was an expert on native lit, asked me how it was that my plays could be studied at university without my having academic credentials. I didn't take it personally -- the alcohol and potato chips were free.
It's universally accepted that education is important, especially in the native community, which has an appalling high school dropout rate. But what exactly is an acceptable education?
Amongst First Nation peoples, education often came from the elders on down. In fact, Matthew Coon Come's homecoming to his people, the James Bay Cree, is now part of our folklore. After returning from McGill and Trent, where he studied law, political science, economics and native studies, his father promptly took him into the bush to complete his schooling. Unfortunately, not everyone understands how rich the curriculum is out there. In a society where European models of learning prevail, other possibilities are routinely ignored.
Take the case of Pattie Shaughnessy, from the Curve Lake First Nation, where I come from. The young woman applied to the band's education committee, asking for funding to attend the theatre school of the Centre for Indigenous Theatre (CIT), whose board of directors I sit on.
Shaughnessy was turned down. I was told that the education committee prefers to fund applications to accredited institutions, in order to make sure students and the band don't throw their money away on "fly-by-night" organizations.
I informed one of the committee members that the school had been around since 1974, and practically every aboriginal actor in Canada had been a student there. "Then get the place accredited," was the response.
When told the largest chunk of funding for the threatre school came from federal sources rather than provincial, thus limiting accreditation potential, the committee rep responded, "Well, get provincial funding, then." Ahh, if all the world were so cut and dried.
Luckily, this is not a policy held by too many native communities, many of whom understand that not all forms of education have lecture halls and tests and involve tossing a graduation cap into the air. I'm sure Grand Chief Coon Comb appreciates that his wisdom came from more than one source. It's a pity more people don't.