The creation of a separate school board in Winnipeg for the city's Aboriginal student population will re-establish a sense of identity among First Nations youth and will help curb the city's growing gang problem, experts say.

Earlier this week, Winnipeg city council approved a sweeping crime-prevention strategy that included a recommendation for an Aboriginal-only school board.

While the proposal is not new -- the city does have two schools solely for First Nations students -- the idea of a full-fledged board has never caught on in the city.

But Wayne Helgason, chairman of Winnipeg's Centre for Aboriginal Human Resource Development, said the city must meet the needs of its 20,000 school-aged Aboriginal students, who have a junior high school dropout rate of about 40 per cent.

"Gang leaders don't tend to be your Grade 12 valedictorians, let's face it. School success has an effect on criminal activity of young people," Helgason told CTV's Canada AM on Wednesday.

"I do draw a connection -- if you're not in school, if you're not having success in school, other alternatives are chosen. Unfortunately we do have a bit of a proliferation of gangs and too many Aboriginal young people involved in them."

Manitoba's gang problem is so pervasive that it has spurred the province's Attorney General Andrew Swan to introduce a sweeping anti-gang strategy.

An ad campaign, set to begin next week, is aimed at showing kids the reality of choosing a life of crime, while new legislation, if approved, aims to crack down on gang activity.

The legislation would:

  • Outlaw bulletproof cars, which are often driven by gang members
  • Target businesses that act as fronts for gangs
  • Create a statutory list of criminal organizations that would eliminate the need for lawyers to prove a certain gang is a criminal organization every time they go to court.

But Ron Evans, Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, says an Aboriginal-only school board should not be established solely for the purpose of crime prevention.

"But it is a good strategy because it will certainly bring into the school things that are very relevant for our students, ensuring that they're taught their culture, their languages, their traditions, and also to have a sense of belonging," Evans told Canada AM.

"I believe those would go a long way in dealing with some of the loss of identity that we are currently experiencing."

Evans said the proposal is not about segregating Aboriginal students from the rest of the population. He points out that Winnipeg already has a separate school board for Francophone students, and another for Mennonite students, all of which simply give students an opportunity to learn in a familiar environment.

According to Evans, the two schools already geared to First Nations students -- Children of the Earth and Southeast College -- have high graduation rates.

"That's an indication of the success that they're having because they're culturally relevant in what they're teaching the students," Evans said. "The students feel comfortable in an environment that they're familiar with."