Sunday, February 12, 2006

Hobbema -- third world Poverty, Corruption and Misgovernance

Today I mark my 51st day of holidays. The last time I had such a lengthy holiday was the summer of 2002. I'd just finished a year from hell teaching in Hobbema. All I could think about for the entire holiday was how horrible the next year might be, based on my previous year’s experiences.

Luckily I did have somewhat of a positive outlook as I had arranged to work at a better school with a better principal, and I had hope that I'd get a better Teaching Assistant. For the 2001-2002 school year I'd had quite a few harrowing experiences that I'd never imagined possible until I'd set foot on that reserve.

Here is an excerpt from a letter that I was forced to write to my principal because of her lack of willingness to address my problems with the teaching assistant that I was saddled with:

January 25th, 2002

On several occasions over the last few months, we have discussed problems with the attendance and work habits of Joshua Bigman, the Teaching Assistant that was assigned to my classroom. As of today, I understand that he no longer has plans to tender his resignation. In addition, I am led to believe by his comments in the Healing Circle that he is no longer requesting a transfer.

Presently, it appears that Joshua has resumed coming to school every day, and has done so since January the 23rd (Wednesday) of this year. However, Joshua is still not following the daily schedule of this school, nor is he following my directions for assisting my students. Furthermore, most of the daily duties that I assigned to him have been, and remain unfulfilled, despite regular reminders (you were provided with a copy of these duties in the form of a signed agreement between Joshua and me).

As a teacher, I am forced to recognize that I am responsible for the education of my students. I must formally announce my concern that what is presently happening in my classroom is not in the best interests of my students. My students are entitled to the services of a full-time teaching assistant. They deserve an assistant that is willing to actively assist them in their learning from the commencement to the conclusion of classes, each and every day.

I respectfully request that you deal with this staffing issue, which has become a very serious educational issue, so that the students of my classroom can receive the full benefits to which this program entitles them.

I will continue to provide you with copious records of Joshua’s attendance and work habits on a biweekly basis as I have in the past several months of his employment at this school.

This letter represents the culmination of my loss of respect for the woman that was the principal of my school as well as for this particular educational institution that was charged with bringing up the Samson Cree Nation’s youth in Hobbema. As the letter insinuates Joshua had many techniques for repelling my arguments about performing his duties and coming to work every day.

He would:

  • quit on the spot, thus ending all discussion but then return to work the next day.
  • say he had asked for a transfer to another school.
  • leave the room returning only upon a later date.
  • say “I’d really like to punch you right now” and then leave the room.

His ability to use the above welching techniques was matched, of course, by my students and other colleagues. For any so-called ‘white person’ who would seek employment on this reserve I suggest that you may find yourself a good number of less hellish places to work if you only seek a little bit farther a field.

It’s true that you won’t be required to work much in Hobbema but neither can you expect any of your students or co-workers to put in an honest days work – ever. This isn’t to say that there are not any hard working people there. Indeed that is patently false. I met many a hard-working dedicated person on that reserve.

Joshua Bigman, not his true name but not entirely different from the name he bore, claimed to have been a police officer in his past employment. Given his inability to put in a full day’s work for the entire time that I knew him I’m not surprised that he was working in a much less prestigious position as my teaching assistant. It turned out that the reason he did no work was simply; this was his habit, and my principal did nothing to stop him. Not to mention his amazing delay techniques (mentioned above).

After my holiday I went to the new school full of hope that things would be better but instead of having a lazy good-for-nothing hater of ‘white people’ as a TA, I found a poorly educated, lazy, good-for-nothing hater of ‘white people’ who couldn’t perform mathematical operations that Alberta Education expects our youth to master at the end of grade 4 (10-11 years of age).

He wasn’t a bad sort of guy, I mean; he was apologetic about not being at school on time and equally so about leaving early and also about not showing up at all, as he did on a great number of occasions. When he first started as a teaching assistant in my classroom, I took it for granted that he was a competent, grade 12 graduate as you might expect of a teaching assistant in any other region of Alberta.

It wasn’t until he had helped perhaps 4 or 5 of my students to the completely wrong answer on several addition of decimal problems that I realized that I really had my work cut out for me at this new school. So, when he was there, I managed by teaching him one day in advance the day’s lessons, hoping he’d learn the lessons properly so that he wouldn’t misguide further anymore of my students.

I’ll give this much to his credit. At least he was honest about his inability to perform his duties. I believe that Joshua Bigman suffered from a similar problem of being poorly educated but he was too proud to admit it and too stubborn to learn from this ‘white honky’. For that was indeed the most common curse; “You fucking white honky” Or “Hey whitey, you owe me some rent”. Both statements were always followed by gleeful looks and much laughter among the band members within earshot.

The vast majority of my students were almost precisely 2 years behind in their education – mostly, I surmise due to widespread malnutrition, Foetal Alcohol Syndrome and a profound hatred and lack of respect for all ‘white’ institutions. I was teaching a grade 4 curriculum to students that were in my grade 6 class. Ah, I am so very, very glad that I’m no longer stuck in that hell-hole any longer. The funniest thing about the whole TA issue was the fact of paycheques.

Both of my TAs were getting precisely the same take-home pay that I was receiving; being Treaty Status members who were working and living on the reserve meant that they paid no income taxes. Furthermore, they were living rent-free in housing provided by the government and their band was paying for all of their utilities! Granted, I would not chose to live on that reserve and I most certainly would not even consider raising a family there – not for all the money in the world – it must have seemed like a very good deal to them.

My first drive into Hobbema provided a very sobering experience. I should have simply turned around and went back home rather than going for an interview at one of the schools. As I drove onto the reserve each morning, I found myself wondering;

“How many torched houses will I see today”?

Other interesting phenomena seemed to repeat each day or almost each day as well:

  • gasoline fumes easily detectable within 1 km of the gas station
  • a student threatens to kill me
  • a student threatens to accuse me of sexual abuse if I assign homework, try to take away a skateboard, or candy
  • a colleague or student threatens to accuse me of being racist
  • a colleague is late or absent (if s/he is a ‘white honky’ then s/he is given a severe warning if not then they get to do it again and again, and again)
  • a student offers a large portion of his/her ‘18 money’ for a can of pop or a bite of a chocolate bar “I’ll give you 1000 bucks of my ’18 money’ if you give me a bite of your chocolate bar”

Luckily, the principal of my second school knew my grade 6 students quite well and those who did carry out their threats of accusing me of abuse or accusing me of being racist had done this self-same thing many-a-time with many other teachers – being a teacher with stubborn values I would not let a threat stop me from assigning homework.

The Canadian government really should revise its policies regarding the income tax issue. All the squalor, crime and destitution on the reserve is not the fault of the federal government. The band leaders of the Samson Cree Nation, also known as Nipisihkopahk, must share in the responsibility. One key issue that shows their poor judgement (or perhaps their corruption) is the way they offer the band’s vast resources to the community in the form of ’18 Money’.

Oil and mineral rights have made the band very rich, but instead of spending the money wisely to spur the economic and social health of the community, the band leaders chose to disperse the communal wealth in the form of a check to young band members coming of age. This explains the presence of one 19-year-old named Richard in my first class back in 2001, his subsequent absence and then his return near the end of the 2001-2002 school year. Richard turned 18, received a check form the band for $150 000, promptly dropped out of his grade 12 class bought an SUV, rolled it, bought another SUV and went on a binge of drinking and spending. Two months later his money gone, his second SUV destroyed he resumed his position in my classroom without a penny to his name.

Sadly, this is not a unique story. In the two years I was working with this band the grade 12 class averaged a graduation rate of 10%. The other way that the band unwisely managed its money was in the form of ‘special check day’. A few times a month I’d come to school as usual and find that my class was reduced in size by 30 or 40%. After lunch most of these students would stray back to class slowly over a few hours, saying: “I went to McDonald’s, it’s special check day you know”. The ‘special check’ as it turns out amounts to a $200 to $300 bimonthly allowance for each member of the band.

Many a time I heard parents complain that they simply must move off the reserve for their daughter or son’s sake. They must move to get away from the band culture that deprived their kids of a good education and a positive neighbourhood environment but time and again I also heard them say that they couldn’t afford to move off the reserve.

Quite simply, this is because moving off the reserve would mean leaving behind the free housing, free utilities and income tax free paycheques that the federal government provides as benefits for them – benefits which are only available while they live on the reserve – thus confining them to live in one of the worst slums in all of North America.

This a sad and depressing story of third world levels of poverty smack dab in the middle of Western Canada – between Red Deer and Edmonton.

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