Call to Action: Ask federal election candidates how they’ll ensure First Nations’ control of First Nations’ education.

By Brent [Ahnungoonhs] Debassige, Special to the FNWSC

When many Canadians think of education systems, they think of schools funded by provincial and territorial governments.

Parents among them know their children’s education is overseen by the district school board, which contains highly trained educators and is responsible to the province’s Ministry of Education. During provincial election campaigns, voters can expect party leaders to discuss education.

First Nations education, however, is not under provincial or territorial oversight. Instead, it is based on federal treaty-partnerships with First Nations and on inherent rights existing within First Nations societies prior to European contact in the Americas.

While treaty rights are nation-to-nation agreements enshrined in the Canadian constitution, inherent rights — which include the right to First Nations jurisdiction over First Nations education — are eternal. They existed before colonial settlement in Canada and will endure with no foreseeable end.

Any time federal policy limits First Nations control of their education, Ottawa is simultaneously violating First Nations rights and reneging on its responsibilities in the nation-to-nation relationships. And with today’s federal policy on First Nation education, the government of Canada does both.

“To Canadian parents, ask yourself: Would you be content to allow another nation (the U.S., perhaps) to oversee Canada’s educational systems?”

The result is a limitation on the potential of First Nations peoples to regenerate their languages and cultures, and to receive all the benefits of a 21st century education.

Meanwhile First Nations across the country advocate for their rights, including the right to self-governance. The First Nations with Schools Collective — comprised of eight First Nations governments in Ontario — is among them in working for jurisdiction of education in their communities.

It’s been nearly 50 years since the release of the Assembly of First Nations landmark policy paper, Indian Control of Indian Education.

While Canada committed to applying that policy, the federal government’s definition of First Nations control remains paternalistic, colonial and mostly limited to administration of education, rather than having First Nations be fully self-determining and in full control.

For example, federal oversight of First Nations education consists of a mostly non-Indigenous political  bureaucrats  few of whom have knowledge, expertise, training or understanding of the needs or operation of education systems.

It’s important to recognize the foundations of First Nations models of education are linguistically and culturally distinct. They require all personnel, administrators, and members of the governing authority to have skills, competencies, knowledge, training, and experience to fulfill the aims of a quality First Nations-directed education.

As the rolling waves of the global pandemic have impacted us in ways that will last in memory for decades, there is another reason this past year will stand out for First Nations peoples and many Canadians.

Since May 2021, discoveries of unmarked graves of residential school children have re-traumatized many people across the country.

It can’t be ignored that lack of accountability to First Nations as governing authorities of their own communities are among reasons religious organizations and school administrators could inoculate themselves from wrongdoings at the institutions during the period these tragedies occurred.

While the last residential school closed in the mid-1990’s, there are threads of continuity in the modern First Nations education systems when one considers Canada only allows limited control to First Nations of First Nations education.

To Canadian parents, please ask yourself this: Would you be content to allow another nation (the U.S., perhaps) to oversee Canada’s educational systems?

Many First Nations have been running their educational systems under colonial, paternalistic rule for decades. Considering the circumstances, they’ve done very well, but limiting the full potential of First Nations education outcomes is not acceptable.

Election call to action

Now, as we turn to the federal election, one might ask how many political parties have directly consulted and engaged First Nations communities on what’s needed for their education systems?

Political promises are not enough. The bottom line: Canada is ill-equipped to oversee First Nations education.

If Truth and Reconciliation has significance then Canada’s distinct relationship with First Nations must include full local control of First Nations education by First Nations peoples in a properly funded system.

To Canadians looking for ways to embody the Truth and Reconciliation calls to action, consider asking your elected representatives how they intend to work with First Nations to hand over full local control of First Nations education to those First Nations communities who desire control.

Brent [Ahnungoonhs] Debassige is an Ojibwe-Anishinaabe and a member of the Caribou Clan. He is the former Director of Indigenous Education and an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education at Western University. He is a participating member of the First Nations with Schools Collective. Brent currently resides in London, Ontario but he is originally from M’Chigeeng First Nation on Manitoulin Island.

Rebuilding a Distinct Education System

By Leslee White-Eye, FNWSC Structural Readiness Coordinator

Canadians were shaken to the core this year after being forced to face the reality of  thousands of unmarked graves at former Indian Residential Schools — and in the midst of a pandemic that continues to rage despite all attempts to end it and ‘move on.’ For many across this country, both situations have shone a light on atrocities that can occur when health and education support systems fail.

And today, Canada’s support systems fail First Nation students on both fronts. 

Health impacts of broken systems sometimes attract headlines and federal commitments when the inequity is glaring enough; like with the lack of clean water in many Indigenous communities.

But education inequities for on-reserve learners often get overlooked.

Despite the fact that First Nation education systems —which are the fiscal responsibility of the federal government —are not equipped with the resources needed to hire program developers, build local curriculum and run culture-based programs that would raise low graduation rates and instill strong cultural identities among Indigenous learners, the issue remains under the radar in Canada. 

Unfortunately, this is true even during a federal election season in a year when Canadian awareness of failed education policy for First Nations communities is at an all-time high.

Education leaders with the First Nations with Schools Collective (FNWSC) know community schooling is vital to student success. 

And as they deal on a daily basis with the repercussions of systems that fail their students miserably, they are working behind the scenes to transform education and provide appropriate culture and place-based programming: to provide on-reserve students with a top-tier education.   

Series to highlight First Nations solutions for 21st century education

Through this new blog series, Building a Distinct Education System, the FNWSC will explore what First Nation communities are doing to rebuild education systems. It is a movement that is both exciting and filled with challenges due to current federal First Nation education policy.  

On a weekly basis through October, contributors will share their experiences and solutions to revitalize education systems that are culturally defined in terms that make sense in the 21st century.  

These efforts and successes illustrate some of the many reasons we exist as a collective. Together, we work toward our shared goal, while learning from one another’s successes and challenges to rebuild our respective education systems. 

The case for community schools

For those who believe First Nations students would be equally served by attending a public school in Ontario, we want to be clear: Today’s First Nation learning systems are not comparable to a provincial schooling context.  Their very origins require vastly different approaches.  

Consider:

  1. As pre-confederation treaty and settlement people, our historical nation-to-nation relations in education policy-making is a story of encroachment and neglect. This must be disentangled, taught and understood by future generations in both provincial and First Nation systems. 
    • As peoples historically traumatized by being dislocated from our land and exploited, healing requires immediate family-centred interventions delivered by education systems.
    • Our peoples’ forced attendance in Indian Residential Schools led to deeply embedded distrust in mainstream education systems. Trust must be re-established. 
    • Our shared colonial experience requires decolonized learning spaces and pedagogies. 
  1. As Original peoples of Turtle Island, our stories of our people, land and Creation are different. The cannon of materials required by educators to teach these concepts and knowledges are largely unwritten or false.
    • The peoples’ traditional knowledges, in the face of rapid change with technology, require specific actions for protection and use by future generations.


Redefining on-reserve schooling

First Nation governments don’t want to repeat the atrocities of past First Nation schooling experiments led by colonial governments. They’d rather work in cooperation with governments, institutions, organizations and enterprises to redefine what it means to be schooled on reserve today.

Building a Distinct Education System will amplify voices from the front lines.  In this ongoing series, you can expect to learn about perspectives and initiatives related to Indigenous language, anti-colonial partnership building, lifelong-learning environments, land-based learning and leadership. 

We are excited to share these stories and to highlight approaches to rebuilding education systems in First Nation communities. 

Please join us: 

Coming up next: Centering Language in Education programming: Why it’s important and what it looks like. 

Sharing school stories creates ‘sense of pride’

Wiikwemikong Board of Education Communications Officer Dwayne Animikwan informs community members and the broader public about learning successes

By Jennifer O’Brien for FNWSC

Around Wiikwemkoong First Nation, Dwayne Animikwan is affectionately known as “the Picture Guy.” 

When students were out in the sugarbush collecting sap for maple syrup last month, he was there with his camera. When the Grade 3 class learned to fillet a rainbow trout, he caught it on video. When the Grade 11 Manufacturing and Technology class built a robot, he recorded that too. Basically, if there is anything interesting happening in a Wiikwemkoong school, you can expect to find Animikwan there snapping photos and shooting video. 

And of course it was Animikwan who took the photo at the top of this page, showing Grade 2 Wiikwemkoong Junior School pupils dressed in their #EveryChildMatters shirts to honour the children who never got to go home from residential schools. 

As Communications Officer for Wiikwemkoong Board of Education, Animikwan’s role is to inform families, community members and the broader public about the stories — especially the learning success stories — happening at the three schools in the Anishinabek community.

“My goal is to communicate what’s going on in our board of education,” said Animikwan, during a presentation for the First Nations with Schools Collective (FNWSC).  “I like focusing on things that make our community proud: Our language, our Land-Based-Learning  — things I wish people could get to see.”

Animikwan’s presentation was the third in a media and communications training series hosted by the collective as part of its objective to support its eight member First Nations in sharing education success stories. The FNWSC provides a forum for its members to collaborate and share resources and approaches for education system transformation.

Communication is priority number one

“Success stories highlight why culturally based systems make a difference to First Nation student outcomes,” said Leslee White-Eye, FNWSC Structural Readiness Co-ordinator. “They create pride in the community in their own school and inform the public that First Nations have always been better positioned to govern over their own systems, which is remarkable given the very limited resources communities have at their disposal for education.”

The FNWSC has identified communicating community stories as a critical component in achieving the goal of First Nations control of First Nations’ education.

“Communications is priority number one at this stage,” said White-Eye. “We should give every parent and every leader in a First Nations setting specific examples of success — and of show them how we are doing better than the provincial system in ways that don’t harm learners’ identity development.”

As part of his role, Animikwan helps the education director craft messages, school statements and news releases. He also helps manage interview requests from area news organizations and builds relationships with them. But his favourite aspect is sharing the school and student success stories on the education board’s Youtube and Facebook pages.  

Often those posts aim to showcase classroom lessons and education success stories, but sometimes they highlight a school community member or amplify achievements of students, such as an incredible basketball shot by life skills student Fabian or a beautiful piano solo by Grade 9 student Mason. 

 “These are things that parents wouldn’t otherwise see,” said Animikwan. The posts can generate “a sense of pride,” in educators and students alike, he said. 

Having a constant presence on social media can attract outside media attention, which can also contribute toward other board goals, such as recruitment efforts, he said. 

“We were highlighted nationally for the robotics team. We need to get (that news) out there and get world class educators to come and work for us,” said Animikwan. “All the stuff we do here in our schools,

Well wishers from Wiikwemkoong Junior School walked to support a member of their education family who was not able to be in school this year.

I’m really proud of it.” The session was the latest of several 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.

Earlier sessions offered training to help participants find ways to media attention for their stories.  Education leaders who participated in this third session heard how having a strategy and an employee dedicated full time to communications has benefited the Wiikwemkoong Board of Education.

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

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.

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.