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Thames Valley District will elect an indigenous student to the board Sept. 28

By Jennifer Bieman, The London Free Press

(Postmedia Network file photo)

(Postmedia Network file photo)

The Thames Valley district school board is inviting an indigenous student representative to take a seat around the table, a move that could be a Canadian first.

Southwestern Ontario’s largest school board — which covers three counties and three Indigenous communities — is creating a new student trustee position for an Indigenous secondary school student.

It’s a move Indigenous leaders are applauding.

“It’s very progressive of them. We talk about reconciliation and I think hearing the voice of our youth is a part of that,” said Joel Abram, Grand Chief of the Association of Iroquois and Allied Indians, the umbrella group that represents several Southwestern Ontario Indigenous communities.

“There’s a good population of Indigenous students in the city so it’s good to hear and see this.”

Of the approximately 75,000 students in the Thames Valley board, about 1,800 self-identify as First Nations, Métis and Inuit.

Deputy Chief Gord Peters said the new position will give Indigenous students more of a voice in the public board and is a sign their perspectives are a priority.

“It’s fantastic. It gives us an opportunity to share our view of what education should look like,” he said.

“They have more voice than we ever had when we were young.”

The student representatives can’t cast binding votes like other elected trustees, but can weigh in on board proceedings and policies. The new student trustee will be elected by student delegates from schools across Thames Valley Sept. 28.

“We have some outstanding young student leaders in our schools from an Indigenous perspective and we’re really looking forward to engaging them in this leadership role,” said Paul McKenzie, superintendent of student achievement.

“There’s some interest and we’re really excited about young people stepping forward.”

McKenzie said the idea to create the new role was put forth by last year’s student trustees. He’s looking forward to the new ideas and perspectives the Indigenous trustee will bring to the table.

“Any chance that we have to increase voice and discourse in our board, starting with the students is a huge plus,” he said.

The province has mandated First Nation representation on school boards since 1990. In Thames Valley, Phil Schuyler is the board’s voting First Nations representative.

Abram said it’s about time Indigenous students are given a seat at the table too.

There are plenty of issues and concerns they face, he said, both in schools run by Indigenous communities and in the public system.

As a member of Oneida Nation of the Thames, Abram said transitioning from the elementary school in his community to a public secondary school in London was a challenge. He said the federally funded education system in Indigenous communities doesn’t always measure up to provincially-funded city schools.

“I’d want to see more equitable funding in terms of education so First Nations can provide the same quality of education that the province can,” he said.

“There are some areas where students are a little bit behind. I know there was for me, at least.”

He is glad to see the board invite diverse voices.

“It’s a great step. We didn’t have this voice before,” he said.

jbieman@postmedia.com

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