Community Movements are Key to Education Self-Determination

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.

All means all: Reforming the funding formula is critical to success of First Nation learners

By Neil Debassige of LearnFirst Consulting
Special to FNWSC

The First Nations With Schools Collective’s community engagement strategy has embarked on a front-line mission to identify how the current federal funding model imposes constraints on First Nation education systems.  

Educators, community members and political leaders from participating First Nations are identifying the issues that jeopardize educational prosperity in their communities and using this information to inform the development of a new funding formula.  

Each community has a unique set of difficulties that can help inform the bigger picture in terms of education funding for First Nations at large.  The educators, caregivers and stakeholders are contributing to the development of this new funding model by asking the questions from the front line, where answers matter most and where changes in student achievement are felt first.

We have been compiling feedback from communities in the following categories: 

  1. Instruction: Both classroom instruction and land-based education.
  2. Off First Nation Students: Issues faced by learners who attend high school outside of their community. 
  3. Special Education: Additional supports required for students with additional needs. 
  4. Leadership, Governance and Administration: Includes in-school leadership principal, office support and ‘school board’ functions such as finance, HR, IT support, curriculum development and governance. 
  5. School Operations, Maintenance and Renewal: Includes daily operation of the school (cleaning, heating, insurance, etc.) as well as regular maintenance and more substantive renewal and student transportation.

The community feedback is encompassed in the FNWSC proposed funding formula.

Reforming the funding is critical to success of First Nation learners.

The approach to reforming the First Nations’ Education funding model is not a new concept for Indigenous leadership. The need to reform the funding model has never been more necessary for future success of First Nation learners.  

The critical nature of First Nation education based on the current success rate data for First Nation learners is at an all-time high. The 2015-16 cohort (4-year) graduation rate for provincial students in Ontario was 79.6% compared to 47.1% for First Nation students. (Sekaly, 2021)

*See Gabriel Sekaly’s blog for more 

There are some common themes emerging from both sides of the discussion table that are supported by the research of educational gurus like Michael Fullan, the global leadership director for New Pedagogies for Deep Learning. To further support the research Fullan and associates, Dr. Doug Willms, president of the Fredricton-based Learning Bar research institute, has identified several ‘binding constraints’ that he says contribute to societies’ under-achievement in educational outcomes. 

Among the many barriers to success for First Nation learners are systemic racism and inadequate funding, which both impact the education systems in communities.  

Reforming the funding model for First Nation education programming requires that binding constraints be addressed.

*See Gerry Kerr’s blog on closing the Achievement Gap

150 years of inadequate federal funding

Critical to reforming how First Nation funding formulas generate an end result (a per pupil amount) is reforming the relationship between the parties responsible for determining the formula. 

Oftentimes, the intergovernmental relationship between the federal government and the sovereign First Nation governments is fragile due to factors like historical lack of funding and previously fractured negotiations.

In some cases this has caused a further delay in developing a funding strategy that would allow First Nation communities to bridge the learning gap that has resulted from 150 years of inadequate federal funding and education policy.

*Look for Gabriel Haythornwaite’s blog on this topic on this website, Thursday, June 10

All means ALL

In 2010, Fullan published the Big Ideas Behind Whole System Reform that identified some universal points for further discussion: 

1. All children can learn 

2. A small number of key priorities 

3. Resolute leadership 

4. Collective capacity 

5. Strategies with precision 

6. Intelligent accountability 


All means all: This type of thinking is resonating with what Indigenous leaders and educators have been stating for some time – that given the same opportunity, First Nation learners will achieve.

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. 

A case for action: What’s needed now to improve education outcomes for First Nations students

Leslee White-Eye and former Ontario Deputy Education Minister Gabriel Sékaly get real about First nations education in strategycorp podcast

By Jennifer O’Brien for FNWSC

As part of its goal to see First Nations attain full jurisdiction and control of on-reserve First Nation schooling, the First Nations with Schools Collective (FNWSC) has been working with StrategyCorp Institute, which provides advisory services on government relations.

In May, StrategyCorp published a report on the “achievement gap” between First Nations and non-First Nations students in Canada, with three recommendations on what the federal government should do to address the inequities and improve outcomes for First Nation students now.

That report — which addresses the education-related trauma and ongoing detrimental effects of colonialism and Canada’s residential schooling system on First Nations — supports a 1972 finding of the Assembly of First Nations, that the cornerstone of education success is First Nation control of First Nation education.

StrategyCorp recommendations to the Government of Canada

Podcast discusses challenges and what’s needed now

To unpack the challenges and what’s needed from the federal government to achieve equity for students in First Nation communities, FNWSC Structural Readiness Co-ordinator, Leslee White-Eye, joined senior advisor (and former Ontario deputy minister of education in Ontario) Gabriel Sékaly on on StrategyCorp’s podcast Intended Consequences

During the podcast, moderated by the firm’s Mitchell Davidson, they covered issues that are critical to the work of the FNWSC.  Please check out this important conversation and share with people in your network. 

Only have a few minutes? Keep reading to see excerpts of what Leslee and Gabriel had to say about some critical issues facing First Nations education and what is needed to improve outcomes for students.


A history of racism: Why communities need more than parity to achieve equity: 

Gabriel: Equal funding with provincial systems will never be enough to overcome the history of systemic shortcomings and racism that was built into the education systems in terms of on-reserve education. [What’s needed is] parity plus plus, but it’s equitable outcomes.

Historically there has been a disincentive for education. Not that long ago, if a First Nation citizen went to university… they weren’t counted on the rolls of the First Nation. So the government was saying, ‘if you get an education, we’re going to cut you off.’ That is the legacy we are working with to overcome these huge inequities in education(For more on the impact of colonial policies, such as the residential school system, on First Nation education, see the report)

The control of the funding should be in the hands of individual First Nations. A fly-in community may require additional funding to attract teachers to be there. Whereas a community in Southwestern Ontario may not. That to me is very important. How we define that and how the outcome-based approach . . . is put together

On new relationships and the urgent need for new (out of the box) policy:

Leslee: Civil servants that work within the federal government need to come with the expertise to sit down at a table to talk about the comparable types of things that any education system needs. Policy led by the federal government sets the stage and parameters, they create the box.

But the box that the First Nation education leaders are dealing with doesn’t include things like:

  • school capital,
  • curriculum development,
  • data management infrastructure systems. 

It’s more than turning the lights on and running classrooms in a First Nation school

On how the funding formula can be addressed: 

Gabriel: A lot of [funding] formulas that exist in Canada or around the world are input-based. So many dollars per teacher or per textbook. It’s really not focused on outcome, on ‘What do we want our student to achieve?’ And that’s what we need to move to: ‘What does it take to achieve this outcome that is defined by the First Nation.’

People in the First Nation system are doing a damn fine good job with what they have, but much more is needed. It is a difficult situation

One student’s story shows why one formula doesn’t work for all First Nations

Gabriel: One of the first times I went up to Sioux Lookout. . . I met this [student], the senior class representative and he was from a community way up North. He told me how many different places he lived before coming to Sioux Lookout because there was nothing else. . . I can’t imagine myself at 13 or 14 moving away from family, from everything you’ve ever known to continue your education. That’s what we are asking a lot of First Nation children to do and they need the supports. They need the supports on reserve, they need the supports when they continue their education. 

Leslee: Gabe just described a whole number of communities that live remotely, that are fly-in. When you try to apply a Grants For Student Needs model …. you already know it’s not going to work. We’re facing not only an approach that is similar to the approaches they’ve always taken — which is they lead and define the box and you decide whether you’re going to join in. 

It’s so incremental. You get one per-cent, two per-cent change over three, four or five years. The types of changes we need to be doing in our communities at the community level, we could be doing those now if the incremental way of doing things is dropped. 

Ontario’s Grants for Student Needs (GSN) funding model is largely based on student enrollment numbers and meant to cover operating costs, which can include teacher salaries. It does not include capital or infrastructure costs.

Leslee: What is taken for granted in the application of the Grants for Student Needs model on First Nation funding formulas is that the Canadian system for education has taken well over 170 years to develop. Ontario only just got into its own curriculum development in the last 35-40 years… It’s taken Canada that long to get to a space where they have a shared data infrastructure — a system with which to collect data for the Ministry of Education — and make solid program decisions. (First Nations) need those resources to develop those basic elements of any education system, and yet we keep getting pulled into the discussion around the delivery of programming within a school… ‘how many pencils do you need, how much paper do you need,’… That’s administering a school, that’s not running a system.  

We need large scale flexible deliberation spaces with the federal government to get to the bottom line with resources that are going to make the change needed within one or two years.

On barriers to Funding Parity Plus, introduced in 1972 by the Assembly of First Nations:  

 
Leslee: Lack of political will, lack of funding and a mechanism that’s so outdated in an approach that Indigenous Services Canada and the Crown Indigenous Relations Department [and Northern Affairs Canada] hasn’t been able to overcome. The bureaucracy they’ve over there created does not know how to create the legislative decision-making space, or it’s the will of decision makers in terms of cabinet, to get at the funding needed to make these types of decisions. Ultimately, it comes down to how you interpret section 35 of the Constitution. 

On what it will take to move the conversation forward: First Nation control of First Nation education

Leslee: The Collective has always situated jurisdiction as a key component of these discussions. We completely understand and know how to articulate what our education system should look like. 

Now, the matter is to sit down with the federal government and get at the negotiations to get to the resources that are needed. Just as the same resources are received by mainstream public systems all across Canada. We don’t have that kind of comparable amount of funding for the duties that the Ministry of Education undertakes, and the school boards undertake and the principals and classrooms undertake in our community. 

On what else it will take to move the conversation forward: New policies

Gabriel: We need allies and we need the political will to do it. 

The federal government is set in a certain box, which is a program box where everything has to be controlled by Ottawa. It takes a lot to permeate a whole organization. ‘We’ve always done it that way,’… that’s not an answer, there are better ways to think about other things. It’s an inertia in terms of bureaucracy because they are set in a certain mindset and can’t get out of it. 

Think about how many communities have boil water advisories. If this happened outside a First Nation reserve, there would be action. Yet there is inaction and it’s like 25 years for some communities. There are over 600 First Nations in Canada and an enormous amount of energy that as a country we can all work together to make our society more equal and better and we’re not doing it. That frustrates me. 

Leslee: The [First Nation education directors] are just incredible leaders that have led and are leading in isolation — in a single position running the entire education system for their communities, which usually runs anywhere from early years all the way to adult learning to post-secondary. That’s far beyond what a typical school board director and would do with no additional staff. All of these leaders are working really hard to create the environment for exceptional decisions to be made with very limited resources. 

What the federal government needs to do… is to really get at the (human resources) piece that exists in communities, that we can access if given the funding we need to create really robust strong education departments that have a policy advisor, program instructional consultants,  immersion coordinators skilled in their craft. These are things school boards take for granted and these are things that are not funded at the local First Nation community level.

And yet we’re told the government cares about land based learning and cares about culture identity and history, but all of that has to be built on the ground nand that takes curriculum developers. It’s that kind of conversation the FNWSC is going to go wholeheartedly into with willing participants and partners. We hope the federal government can commit to those conversations.  


‘The time is ticking’  

Gabe: The time is ticking. We can’t wait 10 years. How many Indigenous languages have been lost worldwide? You have to preserve that…

The political level needs to say to the public service, ‘You get this done…  If there are roadblocks at the bureaucratic level at the federal government because they can’t get out of their box, it has to be at the higher level where the minister and the minister’s staff say ‘This is important. . . we don’t want the old ways. We want it done by this timeline.’

That works. I’ve seen it and I’ve lived it. 

A case for action

Leslee: If you want to solve a lot of social challenges facing Indigenous people in Canada, you’re going to do it by education. It’s a far better investment and use of public funds to invest in something that’s going to prevent incarceration rates, mental health crises, drug addiction, the representation of Indigenous people in the courts. . . the list goes on and on. 

The same investment put into the Canadian education system over decades should be put into First Nation schooling education systems.

We can do it together between the First Nation governments and the federal government. 

We’ve got the skills and know how to do it and the Collective is an example of that. Everyone on this team is well-versed in the work of education. We’ve got the  answers, we just need to get to a table that get to the places where there is some commitment of substantial resources that are stable and predictable.

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:

https://us02web.zoom.us/meeting/register/tZMrde6vqj4oGd3UQdrygBoYxFhmAIRc4uoG

Tuesday, April 6              6-8 p.m.

Get the link here:

https://us02web.zoom.us/meeting/register/tZMtceugpj8rHtLw5MR1QfN_CseCzHsiU6hu

*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)