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.
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.
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.
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 Systemwill 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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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
With tips on how to get the attention of journalists, write a news release and develop a blog, a media training toolkitis 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.
“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.
LESLEE WHITE-EYEis the Structural Readiness Coordinator for the First Nations With Schools Collective (FNWSC), an inter-nation table of First Nations seeking control over education.
While First Nation communities have yet to see the true impact of COVID-19 in terms of health and well-being, there is certainty in knowing the impacts will be devastating. Given our collective vulnerabilities to disease as a colonized people and continued limited access to Western care, this virus will find a perfect host in the average Indigenous body.
A recent talk by Dr. Michael Yellow Bird, Dean of Social Work at the University of Manitoba, entitled “Decolonizing COVID-19: A Return to Traditional Indigenous Prevention Strategies in the Time of Uncertainty” led me to think more deeply about how leaders in First Nation communities must legislate specific health education standards for their school(s) that align more closely with critical local health and cultural needs to reduce chronic disease instances and strengthen immune systems.
It is important that these standards go far beyond expectations found in the Ontario Health and Physical Education Curriculumcurrently in place in Ontario schools. First Nation communities have a huge hill to climb in terms of positive health outcomes. Each community having scarce resources would need to hyper target a change to their curriculum to bring about the most positive change to student health, i.e., observing traditional feasting protocols for their high nutritional value, incorporating daily reflective thinking practices such as meditation, instituting more time outdoors or allowing for participation in intermittent sweats and fasting that have strong mental health benefits.
Dr. Yellow Bird highlighted how centuries of tried and true Indigenous cultural practices, almost eradicated by colonial and racist policy, were mechanisms to build physical resiliency in our bodies. In his talk, he references western research related to natural and seasonal sleep patterns, ‘immune memory’, and cognitive resilience that relate to and affirm benefits of traditional practices like prolonged fasting; prolonged singing, dancing in supportive social groups; humour and laughter; and sweats. Each cultural prevention strategy did its part in building immunity in our microbiome, cognitive and muscle/skeletal structures.
With this in mind, more must be done to include traditional physical health practices in First Nation schools. Dr. Yellow Bird worries about the epidemic of inactivity, the devaluing of independent play and the disconnect in relationships between people and place that have become prevalent in modern day society, which is why, he focuses on Indigenous mindfulness practices in his work. Adopting similar practices and more land-based learning that is culturally based as a requirement of curriculum in First Nation schools could be an easy remedy to these issues.
And now more than ever, First Nation education system leaders are in a position to engage in discussions about setting rigorous learning goals that represent the needs of the community and are culturally relevant health standards for all students.
What would a revised Physical Education curriculum look like?
In the short-term, community education decision-makers could legislate increased instructional time outdoors, increased hours of physical education per week and a redefining of what constitutes physical education. Educators can then, in turn, reinvigorate key physical experiences, co-taught with cultural knowledge keepers, like fasting, hiking, canoeing, camping, fishing and other land-based training to strengthen children and youth physical health and cultural knowledge.
In the mid-term, for example, community infrastructure planners would need to build school fire pits as Wikwemikong Board of Education has; teaching lodges as Chippewas of the Thames has outside their school; and, outdoor shelters. Lands and environment officers would need to designate areas for maple bush growth, sweetgrass harvesting (as in the case at Walpole Island First Nation), hunting and interpretative trails to support the work. Curriculum writers and cultural leads would need to help teachers align learning about customs to seasonal timetables, i.e., winter storytelling, and prepare teachers to be flexible when natural life circumstances present significant learning opportunities, i.e., deaths, births, feasting in a revised school improvement plan. And finance officers would need to assess budgets for their ability to hire knowledge keepers, provide the equipment, safety supports, transportation and liability insurances to run rigorous outdoor education programming.
Why culturally relevant curriculum will help our immunity?
Our cultural values place the highest importance on the interconnectedness of all living things. Dr. Yellow Bird says knowing cultural values like humility and respect for all life would keep in check the current thinking prevalent in some youth who believe they are invincible to COVID-19. One example he provided of cultural thinking in the face of disease is being able to see viruses and bacteria as thinking living species that live in our bodies ‘as a great population’ in balance and harmony. Students who understand these values and can apply them to their own immune system functioning will be less likely to take for granted the instability and threat to life a pathogen, like COVID-19, can be to their bodies in times like these.
What will a call to action look like?
Let’s create research teams to assess how First Nation schools are impacting immune system functioning in our students. Let’s legislate for school-led cultural experiences where a healthy level of environmental stress through fasting, doing sweats and being outside for longer period of times strengthen immunity. Let’s plan for schools where children and youth laugh, sing, dance, sleep, meditate, and run more. Then finally, let’s track the impacts these changes in education legislation have on overall community wellbeing and immunity over the long-term.
By learning the lessons of this pandemic, communities can build stronger physical education experiences that draw from tried and true cultural practices for greater physical health.
 The talk was hosted by KIN Knowledge in Indigenous Networks on April 7, 2020 and can be found on their Facebook page.
See National Collaborating Centre for Aboriginal Health at https://www.nccih.ca/en/ for a diversity of publications, resources and other information related to Indigenous health.
Education in First Nation communities has long been an exercise in education management of federal government dollars to run a school. The transformational change First Nations are looking for requires a much broader view of the role of First Nation governments in delivering education.
Councillors-elect running on two year terms is not going to be enough to move the yard stick in education law-making nor is placing the work on already over-worked education directors/managers. First Nation governments must identify qualified staff to coordinate and provide oversight on a nation’s law-making processes in the form of governance coordinators/directors and/or policy advisors.
At a recent dialogue session hosted by the First Nations with Schools Collective, it became apparent how critical governance staff is to getting work done on jurisdictional matters. Kyrie Ransom, Justice Coordinator, talked about the critical role she plays to support the Chief and Council at the Mohawk of Akwesasne with their policy and law making duties.
The unfortunate reality is most communities do not have the resources to hire policy advisors, governance coordinators and/or justice coordinators. ‘Band’ administration dollars fall incredibly short and the Chief and councillors are left managing the piece-meal ‘rights-based’ mandates and processes in-between other portfolio responsibilities at monthly governance committee tables with community volunteers.
If a community is serious about their self-determination they will need to dedicate resources to a full-time, qualified staff member(s) who will build the structures, institutions and processes required to be truly self-determining in education. Provincial governments have Ministries of Education; First Nations need the same resources to carry out those same functions. Curriculum, curriculum resource development, infrastructure planning, parent engagement, board and data governance, financial administration, teacher development policy and education innovation come from this level of government that First Nations are unable to resource.
First Nation governments deserve the same foundational supports to their systems. Federal transfer arrangements must include statutory funding amounts for governance costs if they want to make the monumental changes needed for excellence in education to be reached where there is high student achievement for First Nation students.
Go to the Publications page on this site to see our latest Discussion Series summary report resulting from the presentation by Kyrie Ransom at Mohawks of Akwesasne community.
What matters most in any community sovereignty discussion is with what intention and capacity will we as a people have control over and responsibility for a territoryand how our local governance efforts strengthen our nation relations as a distinct community amongst other communities of the great Anishinaabek or Haudenosaunee or Cree nations in Ontario for example.
A governance framework should be a ‘living’ document. When actively used, decision-makers will be protecting the pre-existing sovereignty, values and ‘legal’ traditions or responsibility concepts of the nation while staying the course in terms of adhering to the long-term growth and development goals of the community and nation.
Well-designed education governance policies created in community and nationterms are key to exercising jurisdiction over education in the territory. Strong First Nation-contextualized life-long learning governing structures and functions is a key area of development in sovereignty affairs of any community wanting to achieve the ‘good life’ for its people. It is also a means to ensuring a balance between family-Creation well-being or people/place well-being and living in a modern global economy. It is also a way of protecting the many medicine bundles (songs, dances, rituals, protocols, teachings, rites of passage, etc.) left behind by our ancestors that are evidence of First Nation law concepts of Natural and Spirit Law and ways to ensure family well-being.
The work ahead for First Nation government officials, its citizens, staff and allies therefore is long and arduous for many reasons including nation state law-making traditions, colonization and resulting socio-cultural impacts which speaks to finding the right balance for each community between carrying on in a Western-structured education governance environment and making the monumental changes needed to ignite a cultural movement within education governance for ourselves.
A community that is united and coordinated in its approach, staffed with field-specific and cultural expertise and equipped with a community-approved education governance policy framework could be the spark to ignite the bright road ahead in terms of taking control of education and finding the right balance that tips the scales significantly toward full jurisdiction.
See Kent McNeil, “Indigenous and Crown Sovereignty in Canada,” in Resurgence and Reconciliation Indigenous-Settler Relations and Earth Teachings, ed. Michael Asch, John Burrows, and James Tully (Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press, 2008), 293-314.
For the purposes of this blog post, ‘community’ is the geo-politically defined First Nation community largely understood by the Crown as a ‘band’ having responsibility over a community of people within a specific territory or place while ‘nation’ is referring to the whole of the First Nation communities who belong to the larger body of people who share a language, beliefs and ways of organizing their social, physical and spiritual lives.
FNWSC communities can strengthen their law-making processes and understanding by sharing each other’s unique assertion histories and current approaches in policy and law development, implementation and evaluation.
Since the late Winter of 2016, delegates from participating nations in the FNWSC dialogue at strategic planning sessions about their law-making processes, education governing experiences, i.e., how they run their boards of education, for example, and what their vision of a transformed First Nation education system looks like in their respective communities.
Through think tanks held on-line through virtual meeting platforms, delegates dive deeper into governance specific topics and share their policies, ask questions and offer valuable insight into each other’s challenges and opportunities in education governance matters.
Delegates raise important questions about current law-making structures that cause even deeper recognition of the work ahead, such as:
In what ways does our community assert education jurisdiction now?
How do I ‘Indigenize’ the current education policies we have now because as I reflect on them they are simply mirror images of the public school system policies and do not reflect our Anishinaabek/Haudenosaunee view?
Are there words in the language that will better express the intent of a policy?
Does this policy take into account our key principles, values and beliefs as described in our draft frameworks?