Rebuilding Distinct Education Systems: Taking back the Language

Chippewas of the Thames First Nation needs to strategize around attracting fluent speakers from other communities, says Monty McGahey II for our reBuilding Distinct Education Systems blog series

By Monty McGahey II
Language Development Specialist, Deshkan Ziibi

Chippewas of the Thames First Nation (COTTFN) is located in southwestern Ont., about a 20-minute drive from London. The First Nation is close to Highway 401 which is the main roadway from the U.S. border at Detroit to Toronto. 

Like many First Nations, COTTFN does not have any fluent Anishinaabemowin speakers. And like many, it is committed to bringing back the language into the community, despite the challenges it faces today. 

Mt. Elgin Residential school —  which operated within the First Nation’s territory until 1946, then as an ‘Indian Day School’ until it was burned down in the 1980s —  played a huge role in the loss of culture and language in the community.

Although our community has not had fluent Anishinaabemowin speakers from COTTFN since around the 1980s, a small group of people is dedicated to bringing back the language. These community members are learning Anishinaabemowin as a second language.

 Apart from COVID-19 affecting classroom immersion, listed below are some Anishinaabemowin revitalization initiatives and challenges we have faced at COTTFN.

Community Anishinaabemowin classes 

 Since 2006, COTTFN has held community Anishinaabemowin classes. Betsy Kechego began leading the classes with the help of elder Jennie Blackbird from Bkejwanong (Walpole Island). Before being interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, classes started every September and ran once or twice a week until around June. Students also received funding to attend the Anishinaabemowin-Teg language conference which is held every March in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich. 

Barriers and challenges: Because the classes were open to the community, student attendance was inconsistent. Due to personal situations, students would sometimes attend for a few weeks, then be away for a few weeks. As the classes are held in the evenings, some people expressed that they weren’t able to make all of them because of other commitments. At COTTFN we don’t have a place for community members to use the language in a social way apart from formal classes. We do not have a place for us to go and listen to Elders speak to each other in the language, simply because we do not have elders that speak Anishinaabemowin.

Early Years centre initiatives 

COTTFN’s Enji Maajtaawaad (Where they start) Early Years centre has been trying to implement immersion into daily programming since 2016. The idea was to have a language speaker in each of the centre’s four rooms: the baby room, toddler room and the two pre-school rooms. Each language speaker was to influence and encourage the Early Childhood Educators (ECEs) into using Anishinaabemowin throughout the day as the regular way of communication.

In September 2017 to August 2018, each of the rooms had a language speaker. Since then a couple speakers have left and a couple have changed roles within the centre. The goal now is to teach ECEs as much language as possible while encouraging them to use as much language as they’re comfortable with throughout the day.

Enji Maajtaawaad has also led an Anishinaabemowin Language Challenge, which is a Spelling Bee-style competition for anyone in the community to participate in with the first place winner receiving $10,000. This competition has helped create awareness of the language in the community and motivated some members to learn the language.

Barriers and challenges: Not all of the ECEs are passionate learners of Anishinaabemowin, although there are a few that are determined to learn. It can be challenging to motivate employees to pick up a language that they’re not familiar with and for them to be self-motivated to speak it daily within their employment.

Our former JK/SK teacher Betsy Kechego with her language immersion class at the monument honoring children who attended the Mt. Elgin Residential school. In this photo, Betsy is showing the word on each monument for the seven grandfather teachings. 

Elementary school initiatives

Antler River Elementary School (ARES) has also been attempting to implement immersion as the medium of instruction for the school beginning with junior/senior kindergarten. In the 2018-19 school year, ARES had three Anishinaabemowin teachers that were the lead teachers in two JK/SK rooms and the Grade 1 room. The school has been as supportive as possible in helping implement immersion with the limited resources that we have in the community.

The rest of the teachers in the school were also given the option to take two language classes per week — one after school and one during lunch hour. The classes aimed to help teachers learn basic vocabulary they could use within their classrooms.

Barriers and challenges: The days start in English, since the classes are housed in the main on-reserve school which has regular English-language programming and starts with the morning announcements broadcast throughout the school in English. There are teacher assistants in the room who are not fluent in Anishinaabemowin. So the children hear English from at least one other person in the room throughout the day. Also, during teacher prep time and lunches, the kids are led by other teachers or assistants who only speak English. This allows the children to feel they can always rely on English to communicate.

All three teachers from the 2018-19 school year have left. Two moved back to teach in their own communities and one was elected into Chief and Council. 

Next Steps

The main challenge to implementing Anishinaabemowin immersion at Chippewas of the Thames is the lack of fluent speakers or proficient second-language speakers that are available to teach. For both Enji Maajtaawaad and Antler River Elementary School, there have been job postings for Anishinaabemowin speakers/teachers that just did not have a response. The majority of language teachers we have had/have, have come from different communities and some have moved back to their home communities to teach. 

Anishinaabemowin revitalization is essential to this community. The leadership of COTTFN understands the commitment needed to help create Anishinaabemowin speakers and there now needs to be a strategy created around retaining speakers from other areas and creating new speakers who want to pass on the language to the next generations of Anishinaabe people.

Related blog posts:

Rebuilding a Distinct Education System

Election Call to Action: Ask candidates how they’ll ensure First Nations control over First Nations education

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.

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.