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 Keewatin-Patricia District School Board (KPDSB) was one of two boards selected to work together to develop a self-identification policy. Plans were for this policy to eventually be used by all of the 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.
About the KPDSB
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. The KPDSB serves approximately 5,446 students, 38% of whom self-identify as Aboriginal. Estimates are that this figure will reach 50% 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 Ontario school boards to do so.
Many factors led the KPDSB to consider collecting self-identification information, 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, 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 making sure programs support 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
- To request additional funding from the provincial government to support Aboriginal students in the same way that immigrant students are supported in southern Ontario.
Facing the challenges
KPDSB faced several challenges when planning its Policy, including:
- The need to secure the trust and support of Aboriginal families and their 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 area.
Preparing for the Policy and student survey
To address these challenges, steps included:
- Consulting widely with principals, teachers, students, communities, local groups and other key constituencies before drafting the Policy and during its development
- Working with the Kenora Catholic District School Board, NAEC through NOEL, local community partners and First Nation organizations to reach out to Aboriginal parents and community members
- Designing an extensive communication strategy that included local public meetings with Aboriginal parents, local newspaper coverage, letters to parents and brochures
- Developing Aboriginal parents and educators as advocates
- Addressing privacy concerns by assuring that all data would be securely stored, treated in the same way as Ontario Student Records, would not reveal individual data, and would only be used to enhance Aboriginal education programming
- Training secretaries and front-line administrative staff in schools to sensitively answer questions from parents about the registration form
- Designing 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.
Each school was responsible for tracking who had self-identified, and for following up when people had not responded. 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.
KPDSB estimates that just under 100% of elementary and approximately 80% of secondary Aboriginal students have self-identified on school registration forms. The approximate sample size is 2,200 Aboriginal students. Key results from analyzing the data 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
- 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 will continue to collect this data on an ongoing basis. It asks for this data on registration forms for all new students. Secretaries and front-line 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 Board is taking include:
- Continuing to report its progress at public Board meetings and through a wide variety of other communication tools
- 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, such as:
- a brochure highlighting the successes of the Policy’s results for distribution to students, their families and communities
- The Self-Identification Oral Language Project, sponsored by the MOE’s Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat, to improve oral language skills which will lead to increased reading comprehension
- Character Development initiatives that are based on Anishinaabe Seven Grandfather Teachings, such as restorative practices, progressive discipline and Aboriginal healing circles. The results have been gains in creating a systemic culture of caring and inclusion, and a greatly reduced number of formal suspensions.
- A Voice for Vision retreat, where all KPDSB secondary school students identify concerns and ideas that make for successful learning.
Best practices and lessons learned
- When engaging First Nation Communities, it is recommended to ask their permission first, before discussing pertinent issues with regional Political Territorial Organizations and/or Tribal Councils such as Grand Council Treaty #3, as well as other Aboriginal organizations such as the Métis Nation of Ontario.
- Create an effective communication plan, including print material such as 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
- Address privacy and confidentiality concerns, and assure that the data 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 they understand the initiative, are sensitive to and can respond to the concerns raised
- Report results to stakeholders and affected communities
- “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 (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.
 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 OHRC 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 72.
 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.
 Board Policy, supra note 75 at 1.
 MOE Report, supra 67 at 6 and Ibid. at 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.
 The copy of the Student Registration Form found on the OHRC’s website is a revised form from 2007.
 MOE Report, supra 67 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 70.
 Annual Report, supra note 70.
 KPDSB Telephone Interview, supra note 69.
 KPDSB Telephone Interview, supra note 69.