Gabriel Haythornthwaite, Intergovernmental Relations Lead

The recent discovery by the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation that revealed an estimated 215 children had been buried on the grounds of the shuttered Catholic-run Kamloops Residential School signals a new reckoning with colonial genocide in Canada. 

While the Catholic hierarchy scrambles for cover and government officials at all levels reiterate their commitment to the 94 Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) Calls to Action, First Nations across Canada have mobilized to demand answers and closure around the thousands of children who were disappeared in the residential school system.

The establishment media has connected the dots between the hard evidence of mass colonial disappearances and the yawning chasm between government pledges and concrete action. 

“After Kamloops, the politics of Indigenous reconciliation will never be the same,” stated a CBC News headline published shortly after Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc announced the findings.

That article, written by journalist Aaron Wherry, assumes the wider governmental view that the TRC’s Calls to Action are the primary basis upon which reconciliation will be realized. But, the irony of considering the TRC action calls as the guide to political change is found in the reality that the Commission’s recommendations shy away from even the most modest of political reforms contemplated by the Government of Canada in the 1980’s and 1990’s.

Proposed political reforms are best exemplified in the 1983 Penner Report and in the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) report, both of which call for the creation of a new constitutional order of First Nations self-government. 

Capital funding denied 

Though First Nations organizations were not entirely in agreement with the federal “third-order government” formula (which augments Canadian federalism by adding a First Nations governmental level to federal and provincial/territorial ones) advanced in the failed 1992 constitutional Charlottetown Accord, the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) did adapt the goal of constitutional protection to education jurisdiction and self-government in the ambitious 1988 research project of Tradition and Education. 

This document drew on community-level experience with ‘local control’ over on-reserve schooling and firmly rejected delegated self-administration arrangements pushed by federal governments.

However, current federal “self-government” policy overseen by Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada (CIRNAC) insists on delegated self-administration arrangements in First Nations schooling. This policy denies both constitutional protection and major capital funding (any project over $1.5m) to aggregated First Nations education boards. 

The current message this sends from the Government of Canada to First Nations is that you cannot have your own education systems invested with autonomous authority or money to build and renovate on-reserve schools.

The embargo on major capital for First Nations education is also present in the Indigenous Services funding policy connected to current discussions around new provincial-level interim funding formulas and regional education agreements confirming those formulas.

The federal move to pass an UNDRIP-referenced bill to have Canadian statutes “reflect” the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples’ articles will face a critical test in whether the current colonial restrictions on First Nations education jurisdiction and funding will remain in place under Bill C-15’s proposed action plan.

How are First Nations to realize concrete moves towards education self-determination beyond endless reconciliation rhetoric and gestures from the Canadian establishment? 

In my work as the Intergovernmental Relations Lead at the Collective, a key starting point to answer this question is in the insights and experience of those leading community education in the participating Nations of the FNWSC.

Meaningful community involvement essential

In preliminary discussions, FNWSC education leaders have shared that moves towards asserting and practising “honourable Indigenous governance approaches” require a focus on the holistic lifelong learning and social needs of students and families. 

These leaders say whole communities should be meaningfully involved in all aspects of education–from participation in governance decision-making to the provision of comprehensive cultural learning rooted in Indigenous language.

The insights of education leaders participating in the Collective speak to the overarching need to build community education movements to advance self-determination. These movements will be built through the active participation of families in their children’s schooling and in the struggles to overturn colonial harm in education practise and authoritarian policy.

Building both local and wider community education movements can benefit from past experience to organize and mobilize families, staff and students for self-determination in First Nations schooling.

Preceding the 1980’s talks around constitutional self-government, Indigenous Peoples mobilized at the community level to take autonomous control over on-reserve schooling. 

Nisga’a Education Movement

One prominent example of such a movement is that of the Nisga’a people in northern B.C. The Nisga’a education movement was started by community teachers at federally-run local schools in the 1960’s. These teachers formed an alliance with the families of students to document and challenge what they termed “miseducation” and to stop the kidnapping of secondary students to residential schools in the south. 

This teacher-family alliance prevailed upon the political leaders of the Nisga’a Tribal Council to take up the cause of ‘local control’ in negotiations with Canadian governments, eventually concluding an agreement with B.C. to form Nisga’a school district #92 (SD92) in 1975. 

SD92 continues today, operating four community schools that offer K-12 public programs and services. Other First Nations have their own local histories of community education movements and struggles. 

Putting self-determination in First Nations schooling on a firm footing requires examining these past efforts so as to apply their lessons to the community organizing needed today.

For an overview of the Nisga’a education movement and the early years of the new school district’s operations, see McKay, A. and McKay, B. (1987). Education as a Total Way of Life: The Nisga’a Experience. In Jean Barman, Yvonne Hébert, Don McCaskill (Eds.), Indian Education in Canada, Volume 2 (pp. 64-85). Vancouver, British Columbia: UBC Press.

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