Why using Ontario’s funding formula is not equitable for First Nation education

By Gabriel Sekaly of StrategyCorp Inc. – Special to the FNWSC

March 26, 2021

As part of its framework to improve education funding on First Nation unceded territory, the Government of Canada has proposed using an adapted version of Ontario’s education funding formula for Ontario-based First Nations.  This formula is called the Grants for Student Needs (GSN).

Before embarking on a review of the federal proposal to utilize the GSN, a number of very important points related to the history and context of First Nation education as well as history of the GSN should be laid out and taken into account.

The legacy of the historical underfunding of First Nation education, of the implementation of Residential schools and of other active and passive measures of governments to assimilate and not recognize First Nations must be part of any discussion leading to the development of an education funding model.

First Nation communities, beyond having to overcome more than 150 years of underfunding and deliberate action by governments to undermine their language, culture and sovereignty also do not have in place the systems, processes and infrastructure that Provincial school boards have and to which the GSN applies.

-Gabe Sekaly, StrategyCorp Inc.

A number of recent reviews have addressed the issue of First Nation education, such as the Truth & Reconciliation Commission.  These reviews included a focus on closing the achievement gap between First Nation and non-First Nation students. 

In fact, the TRC made the following pertinent recommendations:  

We call upon the federal government to eliminate the discrepancy in federal education funding for First Nations children being educated on reserves and those First Nations children being educated off reserves. 

We call on the federal government to draft new Aboriginal education legislation with the full participation and informed consent of Aboriginal Peoples. The new legislation would include a commitment to sufficient funding and would incorporate the following principles: 

i. Providing sufficient funding to close identified educational achievement gaps within one generation. 

ii. Improving education attainment levels and success rates. 

This achievement gap is alarming. First Nation students are much less likely to graduate than non-First Nation students. 

In the 2015-2016 school year, Ontario’s overall percentage of students who graduated within four years is 79.6%.  For First Nations students, this rate is less than half at 47.1%.

Similarly in 2015-2016, Ontario’s overall percentage of students with eight or more credits at the end of Grade 9 was 88 per cent.  For First Nations students the percentage was 65 per cent.  

And the year-over-year results tell an even graver story.   The rate of First Nation students leaving Grade 10 with 16 or more credits is 52 per cent from 2012-2013 to 2015-2016 school year.  For Ontario students province-wide, 78.5 per cent on average had 16 or more credits during the same time period.  This is a 26 per cent achievement gap.

 In terms of EQAO tests if we compare results in Grades 3, 6, 9 and Grade 10 for students in the English school board system to  First Nation and non-Indigenous students we see the following results in the latest available data (2015-16):

Grade 3ReadingWritingMath
 First Nation535640
Grade 6ReadingWritingMath
 First Nation626123
Grade 9 Math (academic)Grade 9 Math (applied) 
 First Nation6734 
Grade 10 OSSLT  
 First Nation59  

There are no comparable publicly available statistics for youth attending schools in First Nation communities.  

Given other data sources available, it would be safe to presume that the educational achievements are, at best, on par with that in the English school system which shows a significant gap in reading, writing and math in all grades and through the years in the report.

The Grants for Student Needs that the Ontario Ministry of Education uses to allocate funding to the 72 provincially run school boards is an “input-based” formula. Every year, the Ministry of Education makes adjustments to the formula and funding levels (inputs) based on government policy and fiscal decisions.  For example, whether to increase or decrease class sizes. This formula funds the activities of 72 school boards encompassing about 5,000 schools and over two million students. 

More importantly, for our purposes is the fact the GSN was developed in the late 1990’s/early 2000’s to support a mature educational system. A system that had in place structures, processes, curricula, etc.that had evolved over the previous more than 150 years in Ontario.  This includes school board administrative infrastructure, well trained (and organized teachers), robust local governance, relevant curricula, etc. 

In fact, prior to education reforms in the late 1990’s, local school boards had the power to increase local tax rates on property owners. In addition, in this provincial model, the ministry has substantial responsibilities, including the development of province-wide curriculum, collective bargaining and provide ongoing support to school boards.

First Nation communities, beyond having to overcome more than 150 years of underfunding and deliberate action by governments to undermine their language, culture and sovereignty also do not have in place the systems, processes and infrastructure that Provincial school boards have and to which the GSN applies.

Fundamentally, the GSN is meant for a mature system.

On First Nations, education traditionally goes beyond the classroom.  It is an education that is rooted in the language, culture, traditions, and history of each individual First Nation.  This focus means that Elders, Traditional Knowledge Keepers and the community as a whole play an important role in the education of their children.  It means that First Nation education encompasses lands-based education that connects the students to their environment and teaches the importance of caring for “Mother Earth for the next 7generations,” a principal found within the FNWSC Education Funding Policy Framework.

Fundamentally the Federal approach of using an adapted version of GSN to determine education funding for First Nation education systems contains a number of flaws, including:

  • It is not an outcome-based approach – it uses an input-based system that does not take into account the significant learning gaps between First Nation and non-First Nation students;
  • It does not provide the funding needed to overcome the decades of underfunding and active measures by successive governments to undermine the language and culture of First Nations;
  • It relies on decisions of the provincial government for any annual adjustments to the formula and funding levels.  The Government of Ontario makes these decisions based on their policy choices for their educational system and does not take into account First Nation run schools and systems;
  • It uses a funding framework developed for 72 mature school boards not for 130 independent First Nations, the majority of which have one school; 
  • It does not take into account third level services provided by a Ministry of Education and does not adequately take into account second level services provided by a school board;
  • It creates a system in Canada whereby First Nations in each province/territory are funded at substantially different levels and on a different basis depending on provincial/territorial jurisdiction decisions, thereby creating inequities across Canada; and, 
  • It does not recognize the full aspirations of First Nation communities to provide a holistic approach to the education of their children that includes the important role of the community. 

Surely the Government of Canada can do much better.

So why is the FNWSC calling for parity plus in terms of funding for FN Schools? Because it is not about an equal amount of “input”; it is about achieving similar educational and societal outcomes. And to achieve these equitable outcomes, it will require the Government of Canada to properly fund FN schools to overcome the historical inequities and truly support “First Nation control of First Nation education”.

First Nations Work to Reclaim Data Sovereignty

As a collective, 8 First Nations draw on each other’s common view of success and work to build a data infrastructure blueprint 

March 23, 2021

By Dr. Ashley Sisco, Jana George, & Alisha Fowler, Sisco & Associates Consulting Services Inc. – Special to the FNWSC

First Nations have always had their own ways of gathering, protecting and using their knowledge and information. However, Canada has continuously ignored First Nations sovereignty.

Education data sovereignty is not an exception. 

Data sovereignty is defined as the right to manage information in accordance with a community’s unique laws, customs and culturally-relevant practices. Data is key to self-determination because it provides evidence to influence decision-making.

Canada’s education system determines educational success and funding based on indicators such as attendance, grades, standardized tests and graduation rates. These indicators reinforce European values and undermine Indigenous worldviews. Yet, First Nations are forced to conform to these indicators in education. Funding shortages have prevented First Nations from consistently collecting the data that connects learning outcomes to community goals. 

The First Nations With Schools Collective (FNWSC)— a group of eight First Nations in Ontario working together to advance shared goals in lifelong learning — is asserting data sovereignty through redefining how First Nations’ lifelong learning is measured. 

For FNWSC First Nations, the purpose of education is to support individuals, family and community members in reaching their full potential, based on their individual goals. Member First Nations share common educational goals, impacts and measures, which differ from Canada. However, due to chronic federal funding shortfalls, they have not had the capacity to collect data using their own lifelong learning measures and build the comprehensive data systems comparable to provincial data systems. 

Our firm, Sisco & Associates Consulting Services (SISCO), has been honoured to support the FNWSC First Nations in developing their data sovereignty capacity. Through this pilot project, the FNWSC is building on conventional student achievement measures by adding community-defined goals and indicators. The purpose of this work is for the FNWSC First Nations to be able to measure and support their learning journeys, as well as advocate for federal funding in a meaningful way for their communities. 

Throughout this process, our team experienced a few “aha moments” that gave us important insight into FNWSC community values and visions for learning. 

  1. FNWSC member First Nations define lifelong learning as an ongoing process that supports individuals in developing strengths, realizing their potentials and contributing to their communities. This is in contrast to the Canadian system, which is designed to train students to support the economy. 
  1. For FNWSC First Nations, learning occurs from pre-birth to post-death, not solely confined to a period of someone’s life (e.g. Kindergarten to Grade 12). It is not confined to the classroom but happens everywhere, especially in the community.
  2. Education is all around us. It is what an individual learns from every experience in daily life. FNWSC First Nations currently collect data by areas like social services, economic development, and health separately from education because funding authorities require it this way. What we learned is that in order to understand lifelong learning this data should be collected and considered together as indicators of success. 

First Nations need both adequate funding for and control over First Nations education. 

If Canada is serious about reconciliation, it must respect First Nations jurisdiction to define and measure lifelong learning and uphold federal funding obligations for First Nations education.

As a next step, Canada must make space at intergovernmental tables for First Nations as sovereign Nations with self-governments of equal decision-making power. 

Elders invited to share stories of culture and land-based learning

By Jennifer O’Brien – special to FNWSC

Elder Law Forum in Anishinaabemowin
Education Law in Anishinaabemowin Forum for Speakers Nov.2019 hosted by FNWSC

As part of its goal to incorporate culture-based curriculum into the infrastructure of schools on First Nations, the collective has invited Elders to share their stories with members through a series of meetings this spring. 

During the first two meetings, held over Zoom video-conference last week, Elders from three First Nations — Six Nations of the Grand River, Wiikwemkong and Haisla Nation — shared memories and cultural teachings that illustrated how they learned traditional ways of their communities. 

“In summer, we picked every fruit and vegetable there was,” said Audrey Powless of Six Nations, who also spoke about the importance of The Great Law. “Our whole life we spent watching, listening and learning. . . . How to grow corn, how to grow a garden, identification of medicines.  Those values became who we are.”

Joe Starr of Haisla Nation demonstrated how it is possible to build a 21st century education program in a way that the community is agreeable to, by sharing stories of how he teaches students about the cycles of the moon and the way they are connected to that patterns of herring and oolichan fish.

And Brian Peltier of Wiikwemkong First Nation shared many examples about how culture is being passed on to students through the school’s land-based learning program in the ways that parents and grandparents have traditionally passed on knowledge.  

The powerful stories reinforce the importance of language and tradition in Anishinaabe, Haudenosaunee and Haisla communities, and provide evidence that culture and land-based learning is vital to the education of youth on First Nations. 

The stories FNWSC collects through these sessions will inform Indigenous curriculum writers who are exploring Indigenous curriculum processes and key elements of learning within particular Indigenous worldview contexts.  

“It was clear from these conversations, that curriculum from an Indigenous lens is a communal undertaking that takes its lead from nature, the geography and the people’s movement within the ecosystem — all of which is coded in the language,” said Leslee White-Eye, structural readiness co-ordinator for FNWSC. 

“The Elder Voices forums will offer valuable insight into the many levels of learning involved in learning a traditional skill based in community culture.  I can’t wait to hear more from Elders in the next two sessions we have planned.”

Acknowledging Zoom is not a traditional way to gather, meeting facilitators include cultural measures, such as opening smudge, well-being check-in activity and closing circle. 

Registration is still open for the next two Elder Voices in Culture Based Curriculum sessions: Tuesday March 30 and Tuesday April 6. 

If you an Elder who would like to join these sessions and share stories that could help inform First Nations school curriculum writers, please register here: 

Tuesday, March 30           6–8 p.m.

Get the link here:


Tuesday, April 6              6-8 p.m.

Get the link here:


*If you know an Elder who might like to participate, please pass on the information.

First Nations Education Funding at a Crossroads

First Nations with Schools Collective examine funding gaps as a factor inhibiting First Nation education systems from addressing First Nation student achievement gaps.

As the Ford government prepares to announce their education budget March 24, 2021, First Nations are left awaiting their school funding fate as the two budgets are now inextricably linked

Every year in many First Nation schools on-reserve in Ontario, teachers decide if they will pursue another year of teaching in the community or seek employment at provincially funded school boards where they can be paid up to twice as much. These decisions become more difficult for teachers who want to remain in the community as the wage gap between on-reserve teachers and public school board teachers widens year over year.   

This lack of education funding parity persists across all First Nation education systems on-reserve in Canada.

Teachers often enter First Nation systems as first year teachers with little experience and leave just at the time when instructional skills are firming up, three or four years later, around the same time the wage difference is too great to ignore.  

You can see the ripple effect of this high turnover on students and families on First Nations who must constantly adapt to new, inexperienced staff.  The achievement gap never gets addressed.  

As the federal government’s new Interim Funding Approach finishes its 2nd year of implementation this month, First Nation leaders find themselves anticipating a Ford government budget announcement. 

Why? The new First Nation education funding formula is now modeled on Ontario’s Grants for Student Needs (GSN), the provincial formula used to decide yearly funding allocations to district school boards.   

An Ontario change in class sizes could dramatically impact overall funding shortages already felt in First Nation schools resulting in even less classroom supports, less funding to pay teachers, and less special education supports.  

FNWSC is calling on the government to remove the cap in funding and move with earnest in fulfilling First Nation children rights to a quality education.  

There is much to unpack here.  This will be the focus of a series of blogs over the next eight weeks. 

Join FNWSC feature contributors beginning March 18 as they explore the long-term impacts of consistent year over year shortages, funding caps and how the new comparability model measures up as an alternative.

How First Nations can use human rights laws to reassert education jurisdiction

Advancing education equality through policy change and law

Jennifer O’Brien – Special to the FNWSC

Members of the Collective met Thursday for an education and planning session on how First Nations can use human rights law — including the UN’s Declaration for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) — to reassert education jurisdiction.

Fifteen community leaders attended the webinar, which was the second session in a two-part series led by Dr. Anver Saloojee, a Ryerson University politics and public administration professor who specializes in human rights law.

Dr. Anver Saloojee sheds light on the global community of Indigenous nations at FNWSC’s February 25, 2021 Human Rights Policy Education Session #2

The Human Rights training and planning sessions focused on how Indigenous communities have used human rights laws in Ontario and Canada to affirm rights. Members discussed how these codes have been strengthened by Canada’s duty to meet specific obligations set out in the United Nations declaration.

“UNDRIP is the most comprehensive international instrument on the rights of Indigenous Peoples,” said Saloojee, who examined several articles of the declaration that focus on education. “It is a universal framework that sets the minimum standards for the survival, dignity and well-being of Indigenous Peoples around the world and it relies on existing human rights standards.”

The session presented the information in a way that was specific to educators and the advancement of education equality, laying the foundation to help inform First Nations with Schools Collective’s strategic planning methods as it works to advance education equality for First Nations through policy changes.

“In the Education world we talk about UNDRIP . . . but we’ve never taken the time to align it with the work we are doing in education. I really appreciated that.” said one participant.

“This is just a beginning,” said another participant. “It’s a new project and our first encounter with these ideas.”

NEXT STEP: As a follow up to these sessions, the FNWSC will develop a Discussion Paper that critically assesses Canadian and international legal strategies to challenge racist and discriminatory education policy practices and obtain education equality for First Nations.

During the break-out sessions, members discussed commonalities with other Indigenous Peoples around the world and how international law can advance Indigenous education self-determination.

Members also discussed whether outside human rights institutions that operate in a settler system in Ontario and Canada are beneficial to First Nations and whether there should be advocacy for an autonomous Indigenous Human Rights Commission.

As the session wrapped up, Structural Readiness Co-ordinator Leslee White-Eye asked to consider how First Nations in Canada can use UNDRIP articles 12, 13, 14 and 15 to advance self-determination in Education?

For example, article 14 states: Indigenous peoples have the right to establish and control their educational systems and institutions providing education in their own languages, in a manner appropriate to their cultural methods of teaching and learning.

“The value of this convention resides with those who are going to hold the government of Canada accountable for its implementation,” said Saloojee. “The onus of responsibility is both on the government of Canada and Indigenous communities to hold that government accountable for what it has signed. The UN declaration is the minimum standard that we can work with.”

The webinar was the latest in a series of webinars the FNWSC has held since its launch in 2016. Previous online events have featured panelists from all over the world who have shared knowledge about how to raise awareness and impact change by sharing community stories, Indigenous evaluation methodologies, land-based learning and curriculum design that honours ways of knowing and education law development.
The goal of the collective is to share methodologies between First Nations working to reinstitute ancestral knowledge into the daily learning of community life.

Through team meetings, members share information and practices to help communities overcome challenges — including the current provincial framework and curriculum, K-8 schooling, students being transferred to district school boards — and frame First Nation curriculum in culturally appropriate ways that puts family well-being at the centre.

First Nations must still prioritize their own action plans & UNDRIP as Bill C-15 pushes action 3 years into future

Gabriel Haythornthwaite, FNWSC Intergovernmental Relations and Human Rights Policy Project Lead, Special to the FNWSC

The federal government is promoting Bill C-15, An Act respecting the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, as a framework for aligning existing Canadian statutes to “reflect” the 46 articles of the UN Declaration. Should Bill C-15 become law, Ottawa will create an action plan within 3 years to guide this legal review process in some kind of co-ordination and consultation with Indigenous organizations. 

This Act may provide an avenue by which First Nations can prepare for and pursue the ending of colonial rule in Canada. The First Nations with Schools Collective, which organizes community-level co-operation around First Nation education in Canada, will be examining this legal avenue to advance the development of comprehensive jurisdiction education systems that prioritize teaching and learning rooted in Indigenous language and cultural pedagogies. 

The promise of Bill C-15 should remind First Nations of previous federal pledges to advance community-based education which started with Ottawa’s endorsement of Indian Control of Indian Education in 1973 under Pierre Elliott Trudeau. Since that time, Canada has restricted First Nations to the administration of severely underfunded schooling systems on-reserve which operate under impoverished social conditions. Similarly, pledges towards constitutionally entrenched self-government, first recommended in the 1983 Penner Report and, later, in the 1996 Royal Commission, have been repeatedly sidelined by federal governments. 

Articles 13 and 14 of the 2007 UN Declaration have set broad expectations for the equality of First Nation education in the areas of political jurisdiction and funding. These articles directly link Indigenous language and cultural revitalization to the development of community-controlled education systems. 

For First Nations to better realize their self-determining aspirations in education through the Bill C-15 “action plan” process, there are three key community-based reforms to organize and strive for. First, is the replacement of the 1995 federal ‘self-government’ policy that, in practice, denies First Nations both constitutionally-entrenched jurisdictional authority and additional funding for programs, services and school facilities.  

Second, the federal government needs to do far more to support Indigenous language and cultural revitalization than current legislation and funding allows for. Appreciating that almost every English public school district in the country provides comprehensive French immersion programmes primarily to non-French families, the goal of Indigenous immersion programming must be front and centre in First Nations education reform. Resourcing First Nations to develop their own cultural education systems which prioritize Indigenous language acquisition related to the daily life of learners is a critical requirement in the current context of language endangerment and continuing assimilation. 

Third, the current First Nations education funding negotiations under the 2018 ‘Memorandum to Cabinet’ process needs to quickly result in genuinely equitable resourcing that cannot be limited to absolute dollar parity with provincial public systems but instead must extend full support for the extraordinary challenges thrown at First Nations by continuing colonial rule. This full resourcing support must provide for secondary and tertiary level supports similar in scope to the supports district school board and provincial ministries of education enjoy that currently do not exist among First Nations. 

The UN Declaration may be a helpful aid to self-determination efforts, however, the wider experience of Canadian pledges repeatedly delayed and broken over nearly half a century counsels First Nations to prioritize developing their own action plans for community-based change in education. To fully assert education self-determination, First Nations community action plans must include strategic organizing efforts that apply firm pressure on the federal government to follow through with their lofty decolonizing promises. 

First Nation education leaders join forces on COVID-19 school re-entry plans

Jennifer O’Brien – Special to the FNWSC

Since COVID-19 became a global pandemic, First Nation education leaders have been at the forefront of strategies to keep their communities safe and healthy.

Antler River Elementary teacher and a student working through a plexiglass during one-on-one learning time. (Antler River/COTTFN Education)

Amid unprecedented, rapidly changing circumstances, education directors have been involved in big decisions that go beyond education to protect students, staff and the broader community.

And during the past eight months, some of those leaders have gathered several times as part of the First Nations with Schools Collective( FNWSC) to discuss everything from safety protocols to remote learning technologies to the social-emotional needs of students during a community shutdown. 

“When COVID first happened, it was really good, being in like-mind with people who had ideas about what shutdown looked like and what safety in education looked like,” said Felicia Huff, board of education chairperson at Chippewas of the Thames First Nation.  

Members also shared important knowledge about the financial support First Nation education boards should demand from the government of Canada, said Huff. 

“I love the work the group is doing. We are working together. We’ve had a lot of our emergency needs answered by being able to talk to the other folks in the circle,” she said. “Our minds were filled with being proactive and being safe and being prepared to support the community.” 

Early on in the pandemic, the collective’s conversations focussed on community health plans and how to cancel school in a way that education would safely continue.  That led to critical discussions about how to continue providing nutrition programs and stay connected with children who need school for social and emotional support. 

Social distancing measures are just one of many safety measures being taken by First Nation schools (Majvecka/AdobeStock)

“When we decided to shut down, the biggest concern was health and safety related to COVID-19, but the second biggest concern was that we do have families who struggle. We had to keep in mind that this isn’t a holiday for all children,” said Huff. 

Some communities have found ways to maintain those vital connections by having learning support staff bring nutrition packages to households where they can also touch base with students and families. 

School re-entry looks different at each of the member communities, with the spectrum of COVID-19 era education plans running from complete online learning to full immersion back into schools with safety precautions in communities where wi-fi is not reliable. Some communities have a mix of online and in-person tactics.

Antler River Elementary students at Chippewas of the Thames are learning through paper-based assignment packages. Classes are suspended, and the students attend school individually to pick up their learning packages and have regular one-on-one meetings with their teacher. 

Wiikwemkoong Board of Education have returned to school in two cohorts. Before entering the building, all students must undergo screening and have their temperature checked. Inside they wear masks or face shields and follow strict guidelines on distancing and hand-washing. 

“Everybody is co-operating. It’s very important that everybody supports these health and safety initiatives,” said Education Director Fay Zoccole.

“We are very vulnerable here. One sweep of COVID-19 through our community could take our language speakers, our cultural keepers, our story tellers,” she added. “We’re not ready to let go of our precious elders. We need them. They are a rich part of our culture and our ways of life.” 

Teachers at Wiikwemkoong schools are encouraged to do outdoor and land-based learning as much as possible, she said.

As they worked toward approaches that made sense for each community’s different needs and circumstances, FNWSC members bounced ideas off each other and shared successes and challenges. “When communities come together to share stories — particularly in unknown situations like COVID-19 — the considerations are far more comprehensive and solutions come faster,” said Leslee White-Eye, Structural Readiness Co-ordinator for the First Nations with Schools Collective. “There is a real sense that you’re not alone in this. I’m happy the Collective can organize the time to come together and share which  result in some really practical solutions and preparedness.”

Some topics covered:

  • Arrival procedures for students
  • Access to schools & off-reserve staff during border closures
  • Financial support to manage the pandemic 
  • Continuous of nutrition programs
  • Protecting the privacy of people connecting via video from home
  • Protection of Elders living with students 
  • Lag times in receiving PPE or supply orders 
  • How to avoid layoffs
  • (watchable/AdobeStock vector image)

Media training equips First Nation members with tips to share education transformation journey

With tips on how to get the attention of journalists, write a news release and develop a blog, media training toolkit is now available to the First Nations with Schools Collective (FNWSC). 

The toolkit was developed by Media Relations students from Western University Continuing Studies’ Community-Engaged Learning Program with the FNWSC , who hosted this free online media relations training workshop, which several members attended last Thursday. 

Education leaders who participated in the session heard different ways to get their message out to members of the media and also how to use social media platforms to share stories and make connections.   

Presenter Anne-Marie uses this slide to explain how a Sixties Scoop media campaign was so effective.

“The media can be a powerful tool to help promote greater understanding of a First Nation’s education initiatives and causes,” said Leslee White-Eye, FNWSC Structural Readiness Co-ordinator. “As technology changes at such a fast pace, it’s important to stay on top of key tips of the trade. We hope this session was helpful to education leaders who are working so hard on behalf of their communities.”

Thursday’s workshop was the latest in a series of webinars the FNWSC has held since its launch in 2016. Previous online events have featured panelists from all over the world who have shared knowledge about Indigenous evaluation methodologies, land-based learning and curriculum design that honours ways of knowing and education law development.

The goal of the collective is to share methodologies between First Nations working to reinstitute ancestral knowledge into the daily learning of community life. 

Through team meetings, members share information and practices to help communities overcome challenges — including the current provincial framework and curriculum, K-8 schooling, students being transferred to district school boards  — and frame First Nation curriculum in culturally appropriate ways that puts family well-being at the centre.   

COVID-19 & First Nation Schools’ Physical Education Curriculum as a Long-Term Strategy for Disease Prevention

LESLEE WHITE-EYE is the Structural Readiness Coordinator for the First Nations With Schools Collective (FNWSC), an inter-nation table of First Nations seeking control over education.

While First Nation communities have yet to see the true impact of COVID-19 in terms of health and well-being, there is certainty in knowing the impacts will be devastating.  Given our collective vulnerabilities to disease as a colonized people and continued limited access to Western care, this virus will find a perfect host in the average Indigenous body.  

A recent talk[1] by Dr. Michael Yellow Bird, Dean of Social Work at the University of Manitoba, entitled “Decolonizing COVID-19: A Return to Traditional Indigenous Prevention Strategies in the Time of Uncertainty” led me to think more deeply about how leaders in First Nation communities must legislate specific health education standards for their school(s) that align more closely with critical local health and cultural needs to reduce chronic disease instances and strengthen immune systems.  

It is important that these standards go far beyond expectations found in the Ontario Health and Physical Education Curriculum currently in place in Ontario schools.  First Nation communities have a huge hill to climb in terms of positive health outcomes. Each community having scarce resources would need to hyper target a change to their curriculum to bring about the most positive change to student health, i.e., observing traditional feasting protocols for their high nutritional value, incorporating daily reflective thinking practices such as meditation, instituting more time outdoors or allowing for participation in intermittent sweats and fasting that have strong mental health benefits. 

Dr. Yellow Bird highlighted how centuries of tried and true Indigenous cultural practices, almost eradicated by colonial and racist policy, were mechanisms to build physical resiliency in our bodies.  In his talk, he references western research related to natural and seasonal sleep patterns, ‘immune memory’, and cognitive resilience that relate to and affirm benefits of traditional practices like prolonged fasting; prolonged singing, dancing in supportive social groups; humour and laughter; and sweats.  Each cultural prevention strategy did its part in building immunity in our microbiome, cognitive and muscle/skeletal structures.

With this in mind, more must be done to include traditional physical health practices in First Nation schools. Dr. Yellow Bird worries about the epidemic of inactivity, the devaluing of independent play and the disconnect in relationships between people and place that have become prevalent in modern day society, which is why, he focuses on Indigenous mindfulness practices in his work. Adopting similar practices and more land-based learning that is culturally based as a requirement of curriculum in First Nation schools could be an easy remedy to these issues. 

And now more than ever, First Nation education system leaders are in a position to engage in discussions about setting rigorous learning goals that represent the needs of the community and are culturally relevant health standards for all students.  

What would a revised Physical Education curriculum look like?

In the short-term, community education decision-makers could legislate increased instructional time outdoors, increased hours of physical education per week and a redefining of what constitutes physical education. Educators can then, in turn, reinvigorate key physical experiences, co-taught with cultural knowledge keepers, like fasting, hiking, canoeing, camping, fishing and other land-based training to strengthen children and youth physical health and cultural knowledge.  

In the mid-term, for example, community infrastructure planners would need to build school fire pits as Wikwemikong Board of Education has; teaching lodges as Chippewas of the Thames has outside their school; and, outdoor shelters.  Lands and environment officers would need to designate areas for maple bush growth, sweetgrass harvesting (as in the case at Walpole Island First Nation), hunting and interpretative trails to support the work.  Curriculum writers and cultural leads would need to help teachers align learning about customs to seasonal timetables, i.e., winter storytelling, and prepare teachers to be flexible when natural life circumstances present significant learning opportunities, i.e., deaths, births, feasting in a revised school improvement plan.  And finance officers would need to assess budgets for their ability to hire knowledge keepers, provide the equipment, safety supports, transportation and liability insurances to run rigorous outdoor education programming.  

Why culturally relevant curriculum will help our immunity?

Our cultural values place the highest importance on the interconnectedness of all living things. Dr. Yellow Bird says knowing cultural values like humility and respect for all life would keep in check the current thinking prevalent in some youth who believe they are invincible to COVID-19.  One example he provided of cultural thinking in the face of disease is being able to see viruses and bacteria as thinking living species that live in our bodies ‘as a great population’ in balance and harmony.  Students who understand these values and can apply them to their own immune system functioning will be less likely to take for granted the instability and threat to life a pathogen, like COVID-19, can be to their bodies in times like these.  

What will a call to action look like?

Let’s create research teams to assess how First Nation schools are impacting immune system functioning in our students.  Let’s legislate for school-led cultural experiences where a healthy level of environmental stress through fasting, doing sweats and being outside for longer period of times strengthen immunity.  Let’s plan for schools where children and youth laugh, sing, dance, sleep, meditate, and run more.  Then finally, let’s track the impacts these changes in education legislation have on overall community wellbeing and immunity over the long-term. 

By learning the lessons of this pandemic, communities can build stronger physical education experiences that draw from tried and true cultural practices for greater physical health. 

[1] The talk was hosted by KIN Knowledge in Indigenous Networks on April 7, 2020 and can be found on their Facebook page.

See National Collaborating Centre for Aboriginal Health at https://www.nccih.ca/en/ for a diversity of publications, resources and other information related to Indigenous health.

Education Governance Administration Resources Key to Progress in Education Law-Making

Scholarship money concept. Coins in jar with money stack step growing growth saving money investment

Education in First Nation communities has long been an exercise in education management of federal government dollars to run a school. The transformational change First Nations are looking for requires a much broader view of the role of First Nation governments in delivering education.

Councillors-elect running on two year terms is not going to be enough to move the yard stick in education law-making nor is placing the work on already over-worked education directors/managers. First Nation governments must identify qualified staff to coordinate and provide oversight on a nation’s law-making processes in the form of governance coordinators/directors and/or policy advisors.

At a recent dialogue session hosted by the First Nations with Schools Collective, it became apparent how critical governance staff is to getting work done on jurisdictional matters. Kyrie Ransom, Justice Coordinator, talked about the critical role she plays to support the Chief and Council at the Mohawk of Akwesasne with their policy and law making duties.

The unfortunate reality is most communities do not have the resources to hire policy advisors, governance coordinators and/or justice coordinators. ‘Band’ administration dollars fall incredibly short and the Chief and councillors are left managing the piece-meal ‘rights-based’ mandates and processes in-between other portfolio responsibilities at monthly governance committee tables with community volunteers.

If a community is serious about their self-determination they will need to dedicate resources to a full-time, qualified staff member(s) who will build the structures, institutions and processes required to be truly self-determining in education. Provincial governments have Ministries of Education; First Nations need the same resources to carry out those same functions. Curriculum, curriculum resource development, infrastructure planning, parent engagement, board and data governance, financial administration, teacher development policy and education innovation come from this level of government that First Nations are unable to resource.

First Nation governments deserve the same foundational supports to their systems. Federal transfer arrangements must include statutory funding amounts for governance costs if they want to make the monumental changes needed for excellence in education to be reached where there is high student achievement for First Nation students.

Go to the Publications page on this site to see our latest Discussion Series summary report resulting from the presentation by Kyrie Ransom at Mohawks of Akwesasne community.