The following book review is brought to you by Northwest Territories Chapter of the Institute of Public Administration of Canada.

As part of its monthly Book Review Forum, the IPAC NWT Regional Group is pleased to present the following review for the month of January: Cherubini, Lorenzo. (2014). Aboriginal Student Engagement and Achievement. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.

The recently released report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, documenting the experiences of countless Survivors of Canada’s Indian Residential Schools, has once again highlighted the disparity that exists in education funding provided to Aboriginal schools, and in the academic performance and achievement of Aboriginal students. Among other things, the report recommends that in order to bridge this disparity, the government must introduce new Aboriginal education legislation with full participation of Aboriginal peoples that protects language and culture. What could this education system look like?

Lorenzo Cherubini’s Aboriginal Student Engagement and Achievement is a timely, insightful and practical work that discusses the validity of culturally-relevant curricula and the need to make space for Aboriginal epistemologies in our education system. Rather than a simple discussion of how Aboriginal education policy throughout time has worked to marginalize Aboriginal peoples, Cherubini seeks to inform reform, through providing an evidence-based exploration of an alternative to the Eurocentric education system. Grounded in post-colonial critique and the socio-cultural constructivism paradigm, Cherubini strongly advocates for an “Indigenizing of public school curricula” to empower Aboriginal students and embrace a holistic education that is relatable, engaging, and conducive to academic achievement.

The substance of the book is on the experience of the Aboriginal Student Program (ASP) at Soaring Heights Secondary School, a high school in southern Ontario that is attended by both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students. Weaving theoretical discussions of epistemology and pedagogy with narratives derived from interviews of student participants of the ASP, Aboriginal student counsellors, teachers, school administrators, parents and community members, Cherubini adds a human element to this complex issue beyond statistics and graduation rates; as well, he honors the Aboriginal practice of story-telling by using personal accounts to bolster his arguments. Cherubini also pays credence to Aboriginal knowledge in contextualizing his findings in the four components of the internal Medicine Wheel (physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual), as well as the external Medicine Wheel (action, knowledge, relationships and vision). His findings reveal that Aboriginal students will develop a stronger sense of self, greater confidence, and ultimately, increased academic success, when provided the opportunity to learn in culturally-relevant teaching environments (in the case of the ASP, a designated “Native Room”), given access to trusted champions (such as Aboriginal student counsellors), encouraged to learn through action rather than listening, and taught in an environment where knowledge beyond that which is strictly found in textbooks is celebrated. According to Cherubini, students in the ASP became successful learners because they were given the opportunity “to recognize and appreciate the skills, attitudes and values that are unique to them and their communities.”

Cherubini ends his work by underlining that programs such as the ASP at Soaring Heights Secondary School can only be sustained through dedicated, ongoing funding for culturally-responsive schooling, support and a sense of shared ownership by all parties involved, including school administrators, and a recognition of Aboriginal knowledge as a vital aspect to the current curricula. He addresses the critics as well. In particular, he considers critics who argue that there is a danger in providing culturally-responsive schooling insofar as students may miss out on developing important skills related to responsibility and accountability if they are held to different standards. For instance, will the future workplaces of Aboriginal students have designated Native Rooms to retreat to in times of conflict or confusion? To this end, I believe Cherubini’s response would be that Aboriginal students with a positive self-image would have no need for Native Rooms. They will have become their own trusted champions.

Cherubini’s work would be strengthened by addressing how even the best of best practices can have their weaknesses. The range of experiences and socio-economic realities of Aboriginal groups across the country, whether east to west, north to south, urban or rural, is vast; it would be unreasonable to assume that the experience of Soaring Heights Secondary School could be transplanted wherever one finds disenfranchised Aboriginal youth. Perhaps another case study from a different environment, or an example of a failed attempt and the factors leading to its failure, would have added more depth to the examination and findings, particularly if his goal is to provide evidence-based analysis to inform policy development.

Nevertheless, this is a very worthwhile read, whether you are an educator, school administrator, education policy-maker, member of the Aboriginal community or simply just interested in the topic. The recent failure of the federal government to come to an agreement with the Assembly of First Nations over First Nations education funding and control in the First Nations Education Act shines a light on how Aboriginal education is arguably one of the most controversial policy issues in government-Aboriginal relations, and provokes fractures even within First Nations leadership itself. As an Aboriginal student, educated in what I would consider Eurocentric curricula, I cannot say for sure if I would have achieved more success if I had been given a culturally relevant learning experience. Then again, I was blessed with a childhood free of the traumas that disproportionately plague Aboriginal children in Canada, such as poverty and broken homes. Where I do undoubtedly agree with Cherubini, however, is that there is always room for improvement with respect to challenging our beliefs around teaching and learning.

This review was authored by Nathalie Kauffeldt, who is a Policy Analyst with the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories.  It was prepared for Northern Public Affairs magazine by the Institute of Public Administration of Canada’s (IPAC) NWT Regional Group. Please note the views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of IPAC or the Government of Canada.