Ontario’s New Approach to Aboriginal Affairs commits the government to working with Aboriginal leaders and organizations to improve education outcomes among Aboriginal students. The challenge for the Ministry of Education (MOE) in helping Aboriginal students and assessing progress “was the absence of reliable student-specific data on the achievement of First Nation, Métis and Inuit students across Ontario.” 
In March 2003, MOE provided funding to support an Aboriginal student self-identification policy research pilot project, an initiative of Northern Ontario Education Leaders (NOEL) and Northern Aboriginal Educational Circle (NAEC). The task of self-identification policy development was assigned, as a shared responsibility, to two boards in Kenora, Ontario, which had sizable Aboriginal student populations – the Keewatin-Patricia District School Board (KPDSB) and the Kenora Catholic District School Board (KCDSB). The intent was that the two Directors of Education would develop a policy process and product that could eventually be used by other NOEL boards to give the MOE reliable data on Aboriginal students.
As a result of the NOEL pilot project, six school boards in north-western Ontario have developed a self-identification policy. With these policies in place, “these boards are able to focus their efforts and resources on strategies for improving Aboriginal student achievement and evaluate the success of their efforts over time.”
About the Keewatin-Patricia District School Board
The KPDSB is one of the most geographically dispersed school boards in Ontario, with 16 elementary schools and five secondary schools spread over 70,950 square km of land in northwestern Ontario. The Board serves approximately 5,446 students, 38% of whom self-identify as Aboriginal. Estimates are that this figure may reach 50% of the KPDSB’s entire student enrolment by 2010.
Meeting the needs of this growing student population was one of the key factors that influenced the KPDSB to develop and approve the Voluntary and Confidential Self-Identification for First Nations, Métis and Inuit Students Policy (the Policy) in 2004. In 2005, KPDSB asked all of its Aboriginal students to self-identify on school registration forms, making it one of the first school boards in Ontario to do so.
Why consider collecting student data?
Many factors led the KPDSB to consider collecting self-identification information from its Aboriginal student population, including:
- A large and growing Aboriginal student population, particularly of First Nation heritage
- Concerns about academic achievement gaps between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal learners in the areas of literacy and numeracy, retention of students in school, graduation rates and advancement to post-secondary studies
- A lack of accurate, reliable data on the numbers and makeup of Aboriginal students, combined with an understanding that this data is a critical foundation for developing, implementing and evaluating programs that are designed to support Aboriginal students’ needs
- A belief that a responsive, transparent and accountable policy can help students achieve their goals and enhance partnerships with Aboriginal parents and the general First Nation, Métis and Inuit community
- A belief, strongly supported by senior leadership, that this was the right thing to do.
Goals of collecting student data
Collecting self-identification information from KPDSB’s Aboriginal student population shared and supported goals the Board had established for Aboriginal education within its jurisdiction, including:
- To reduce the academic achievement gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students
- To provide high-quality learning opportunities that are responsive, flexible, and accessible to Aboriginal students
- To request additional funding from the provincial government to support Aboriginal students in the same way that immigrant students are supported in southern Ontario
- To improve EQAO (Education Quality & Accountability Office) test scores for Aboriginal students
- To improve the retention rate of Aboriginal students
- To improve programming to increase secondary school graduation rates
- To promote effective, respectful working relationships and partnerships with Aboriginal parents and the general First Nation, Métis and Inuit community.
Challenges and planning
KPDSB faced a number of challenges when planning and promoting its Policy:
- The need to secure the trust and support of Aboriginal families and their communities
- Deciding who and how to consult Aboriginal families and communities
- The need to counter historically ingrained fears of stereotyping and discrimination in the Aboriginal community, based on negative experiences with data collection in the past
- The strong sensitivity to the information being collected, its use, confidentiality and privacy protection measures
- The logistics of informing and surveying approximately 6,200 students dispersed over a large geographic area.
Preparing for the Policy and student survey
To address these challenges, the KPDSB took the following steps before sending Aboriginal families student registration forms seeking self-identification information:
- Consulted widely with principals, teachers, students, communities, local groups and other key constituencies at least six years before drafting the Policy, to get feedback on the progress of Aboriginal student achievement and related program delivery
- Reviewed literature, including Ontario Human Rights Commission publications and relevant legislation to prepare preliminary materials and a first draft of the Policy
- Conducted extensive consultations on the draft Policy to make sure that Aboriginal families and communities understood and supported the initiative, and that they would self-identify on the school registration forms
- Worked in partnership with KCDSB, NAEC through NOEL, local community groups and First Nation organizations to reach out to Aboriginal parents and community members
- Designed an extensive communications strategy that included hosting local public meetings with Aboriginal parents, local newspaper coverage, letters to parents, communication to First Nation communities through their First Nation partners, and brochures handed out at centres within communities, such as malls
- Developed Aboriginal parents and educators as advocates
- Addressed privacy concerns by assuring that all data would be securely stored, protected by the Freedom of Information Act, treated in the same way as Ontario Student Records, not reveal individual data, and would only be used to enhance Aboriginal education programming
- Trained secretaries and front-line administrative staff in schools to sensitively and knowledgably answer parents’ questions about the registration form
- Designed a simple survey question that asked students to self-identify as being of “Aboriginal ancestry,” which KPDSB clarified as including Métis and Inuit.
Administering the student survey
- On January 12, 2005, KPDSB mailed out student registration forms to over 6,200 students, accompanied by a cover letter and brochure explaining the Policy, why data was being collected, and how confidentiality would be protected
- Parents could answer the survey question on behalf of the student, particularly for elementary school-aged children. They were given a few weeks to respond
- KPDSB schools were responsible for tracking who had self-identified and who had not
- KPDSB secretaries and front-line administrative staff followed up with every family who did not return the form, and asked whether they wished to answer the self-identification question
- Families were advised to return the forms, even if the self-identification question was left blank
- The student registration form was later revised to ask whether the student is of “Native Ancestry,” with the choice of selecting either “First Nation, Métis, or Inuit”
- Revised forms were only sent to students who had self-identified in the student registration forms mailed out in 2005.
Some key student results
- Out of an approximate sample size of 2,200 Aboriginal students, KPDSB estimates that just under 100% of elementary and approximately 80% of secondary Aboriginal students have self-identified on school registration forms
- Some key results from the self-identification data collected include:
- There is an academic achievement gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students
- With targeted support and programming, Aboriginal students appear to be improving at the same rate as non-Aboriginal students, showing that Aboriginal students are just as capable of achieving as non-Aboriginal students
- There is an oral language gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students entering the system at the Junior Kindergarten and Senior Kindergarten levels, affecting Aboriginal students’ literacy skills
- There appears to be a long-held belief about the ability of Aboriginal students to achieve that may be affecting the self-confidence of Aboriginal students and their communities.
Acting on the results
The KPDSB is committed to achieving the goals it had established for Aboriginal education and reporting its progress to Aboriginal communities and the broader public. The Board continues to collect and update self-identification data on an ongoing basis by asking for this information on student registration forms given to all new students. Secretaries and front-line administrative staff continue to be trained on how to discreetly and respectfully speak to students and their families about the Policy and address questions. Other steps the KPDSB is taking include:
- Reporting its progress by using a variety of communication tools like public Board meetings, the KPDSB website, press releases and videoconferencing to reach remote communities
- Placing special emphasis on celebrating the achievements and progress of Aboriginal students
to encourage and inspire Aboriginal students, their communities and the broader public
- Identifying and addressing barriers by developing targeted programs, policies and initiatives aimed at supporting Aboriginal students, families and communities, as well as KPDSB employees. Some examples include establishing the Policy in all KPDSB schools and committing to developing a brochure that highlights the successes of the Policy’s results for distribution to students, their families and communities
- Implementing a Self-Identification Oral Language Project, sponsored by the MOE’s Literacy Numeracy Secretariat, to improve oral language skills which can lead to increased reading comprehension.
- All JK, SK, and Grade 1 teachers from KPDSB and its eight NOEL boards are involved. Teachers work directly with an international literacy expert to learn and effectively implement oral language strategies to help students develop their expressive language skills
- Data is collected through the Oral Language Assessment (OLA), which is a measure of the students' receptive language, as well as establishing a text level for SK and Grade One students
- The project results to date are showing that, with appropriate instruction, Aboriginal students are improving their OLA scores
- Implementing Character Development initiatives that are based on Anishinaabe Seven Grandfather Teachings. Supported by these teachings, KPDSB has been helping students through restorative practices, progressive discipline and Aboriginal healing circles. The results have been gains in creating a culture of caring and inclusion, and a greatly reduced number of formal suspensions
- Organizing Voice for Vision retreats, where all KPDSB secondary school students assemble in a retreat setting to identify concerns and ideas that make for successful learning. Information sessions are facilitated by Student Success Teachers. A summary of ideas is shared with each school and action plans are developed and implemented, with student input and participation.
- When engaging First Nation communities, it is recommended to ask their permission first, before discussing pertinent issues with regional Provincial Territorial Organizations and/or Tribal Councils such as Grand Council Treaty #3, as well as other Aboriginal organizations within the local community, such as the Métis Nation of Ontario
- Create an effective communications plan, including print materials such as informational brochures that families can take home to read
- Develop Aboriginal parents and educators as advocates to help explain the Policy and its implementation goals
- Conduct extensive, transparent consultations
- Listen to partners and be attentive to stakeholder concerns
- Address privacy and confidentiality concerns, and assure that the data collected will be used in a positive way that is directly related to improving Aboriginal student achievement and reducing gaps
- Train secretaries and other front-line staff about the Policy so that they understand the initiative, are sensitive to and can respond appropriately to the concerns raised
- Report results to stakeholders and affected communities.
- “The collection of self-identification data confirmed that a gap does exist but also demonstrated that Aboriginal students are perfectly capable of achieving at the same level as non-Aboriginal students. This is an important fact to share with students, families, their communities, and the broader public.”
- “The collection of self-identification data helped KPDSB design and implement targeted programs and supports for Aboriginal students that would not necessarily have been thought of or considered.” 
- “When you ask difficult questions, you may learn things about yourself that you are not comfortable with, but you must still respond appropriately.” 
 The Ontario Ministry of Education (the MOE) defines “Aboriginal” as including First Nation, Métis and Inuit peoples. According to MOE, “in keeping with the definition of Aboriginal peoples under the Constitution, all self-identification policies developed by school boards need to recognize and address the following four cohorts of Aboriginal students attending provincially funded schools in Ontario: one, First Nation students who live in First Nation communities but attend provincially funded elementary or secondary schools under tuition agreements; two, First Nation students who live in the jurisdictions of school boards and attend provincially funded elementary or secondary schools; three, Métis students who attend provincially funded elementary or secondary schools; and four, Inuit students who attend provincially funded elementary or secondary schools.” Aboriginal students who live in First Nation communities and attend federally funded elementary and secondary schools in First Nation communities would not be represented in the self-identification policies developed by provincial school boards. Ontario Ministry of Education, Building Bridges to Success for First Nation, Métis and Inuit Students (2007) at 9 online: www.edu.gov.on.ca at 9 [MOE Report]. According to the 2001 Census, more than 75% of the Aboriginal population in Ontario lives within the jurisdictions of provincially funded school boards. Ibid. at 7.
 Ibid. at 6-7.
 Ibid. at 8.
 Ontario Ministry of Education, Unlocking Potential for Learning: Effective District-Wide Strategies to Raise Student Achievement In Literacy and Numeracy – Case Study Report Keewatin-Patricia District School Board (2006) at 13 online: www.edu.gov.on.ca.
 In a March 23, 2009 telephone interview with Commission staff, Larry Hope, KPDSB’s Director of Education, states that, “in terms of square kilometers, [KPDSB’s operating area] is geographically equivalent to the size of France” [KPDSB Telephone Interview].
 In 2008, the KPDSP had a full-time equivalent of 5,446 students enrolled. This number may have fluctuated since that time. See Keewatin-Patricia District School Board, 2008 Director’s Annual Report (2008) online: www.kpdsb.on.ca [Annual Report].
 The KPDSB adopts the definition of Aboriginal endorsed by MOE.
 Annual Report, supra note 6.
Keewatin-Patricia District School Board, Board Policy 315 (2004) online: www.kpdsb.on.ca [Board Policy].
 Please note that the term “Aboriginal” will be used to refer to First Nation, Métis and Inuit students throughout the remainder of the document, unless specifically stated otherwise.
 MOE Report, supra note 1 at 6 and Board Policy, supra note 9 at 2.
 Board Policy, supra note 9 at 1-2.
 “Where numbers are small enough so that individual information may be revealed, no such information will be communicated. The number is set at 15 or less students.” Ibid. at 3.
 MOE Report, supra 1 at 19.
 Northern Ontario Education Leaders (NOEL), “Oral Language SIP/LNS Oral Language Project” online: NOEL www.noelonline.ca/index.php?pid=39 [NOEL Oral Language]. See also Annual Report, supra note 6.
 NOEL Oral Language, supra note 15.
 Annual Report, supra note 6.
 KPDSB Telephone Interview, supra note 5.