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

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

By Brent [Ahnungoonhs] Debassige, Special to the FNWSC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Election call to action

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

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

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

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

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

Rebuilding a Distinct Education System

By Leslee White-Eye, FNWSC Structural Readiness Coordinator

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Series to highlight First Nations solutions for 21st century education

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

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

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

The case for community schools

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

Consider:

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


Redefining on-reserve schooling

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

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

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

Please join us: 

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

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.

How to close the achievement gap

By Gerry Kerr, Chignecto Consulting Group
Special to the FNWSC

The term “achievement gap” refers to any significant and persistent disparity in academic performance or educational attainment between different groups of students.  

For the purposes of a Funding Parity discussion — which FNWSC has been engaged in — the First Nation achievement gap is defined as the difference in achievement outcomes between students attending First Nations schools and students attending schools in the provincial system.   

To put it simply, First Nation students are less likely to graduate high school than non-First Nation students. And that’s completely preventable. 

Let’s be clear: The achievement gap is not caused by First Nation students having less inherent capacity to succeed than their provincial counterparts.  It is not an intellectual or ability-to-learn gap.

It is the result of an education system that has been chronically underfunded and underserviced.  

That needs to change in order to close the gap. Programming must be provided that recognizes and challenges the intellectual capacity of First Nation students, and does not assume they aren’t capable of meeting provincially equivalent educational norms.

Disparities in test scores don’t tell the whole story

The most widely used measure to determine an achievement gap is disparities in test scores. 

Standardized tests, tend to be the most discussed, scrutinized, and reported measure of achievement gaps in provincial systems. In Ontario, the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO)  assessments  of reading, writing and mathematics​ are administered to all Grade 3, 6, 9 and 10 students.  

And Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) now requires First Nations to report any results of learning assessments as a condition of their funding agreements. 

However, the EQAO test results are not aggregated beyond the community level.

The achievement gap… is not an intellectual or ability-to-learn gap. It is the result of an education system that has been chronically underfunded and underserviced.  

Gerry Kerr, Chignecto Consulting Group

Other studies have also highlighted the persistent achievement gap including graduation rates, post-secondary enrollment rates, post-secondary completion rates, course grades, and higher dropout and absenteeism rates.

Despite restrictions in available testing data, there is significant evidence — including that completed by the federal government’s Office of the Auditor General,— that the achievement gap is so significant that closing it will take many years and significant supplementary funding. 

‘An incomprehensible failure’

The federal government’s inability to help improve life for Indigenous people in Canada, including education, was termed an “incomprehensible failure,” by the former auditor general, Michael Ferguson.  

His predecessor Sheila Fraser estimated that without additional funding it would take  30 years for First Nation education systems to reach provincial achievement equivalency.

In many First Nation communities, students graduating from Grade 8 are heading into high school at a reading level that is three years behind most of their peers coming out of Ontario’s public school system. The same goes for numeracy. 

Because so many of the issues that cause the achievement gap will continue to be factors impacting academic outcomes — even if others, such as poverty and housing are addressed — achievement gap funding will be required until all these factors are addressed.   

It is recognized that not all activities that need to be addressed in closing the achievement gap require additional resources.  

It is also understood that each community has specific challenges and opportunities to address the achievement gap and will require  a specific strategy to address these.  

Having said that, significant additional resources are required by First Nation communities if the achievement gap is to be addressed in First Nation schools.  The incremental amount required is a much higher percentage over base funding currently posed by federal policy makers. 

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

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

March 26, 2021

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

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

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

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

-Gabe Sekaly, StrategyCorp Inc.

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

In fact, the TRC made the following pertinent recommendations:  

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

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

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

ii. Improving education attainment levels and success rates. 

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

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

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

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

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

Grade 3ReadingWritingMath
 Non-Indigenous727463
 First Nation535640
GAP191823
Grade 6ReadingWritingMath
 Non-Indigenous818050
 First Nation626123
GAP191927
Grade 9 Math (academic)Grade 9 Math (applied) 
 Non-Indigenous8345 
 First Nation6734 
GAP1611 
Grade 10 OSSLT  
 Non-Indigenous81  
 First Nation59  
GAP22  

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fundamentally, the GSN is meant for a mature system.

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

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

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

Surely the Government of Canada can do much better.

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

First Nations Work to Reclaim Data Sovereignty

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

March 23, 2021

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

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

Education data sovereignty is not an exception. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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