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.  


  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. 

Media training equips First Nation members with tips to share education transformation journey

With tips on how to get the attention of journalists, write a news release and develop a blog, media training toolkit is now available to the First Nations with Schools Collective (FNWSC). 

The toolkit was developed by Media Relations students from Western University Continuing Studies’ Community-Engaged Learning Program with the FNWSC , who hosted this free online media relations training workshop, which several members attended last Thursday. 

Education leaders who participated in the session heard different ways to get their message out to members of the media and also how to use social media platforms to share stories and make connections.   

Presenter Anne-Marie uses this slide to explain how a Sixties Scoop media campaign was so effective.

“The media can be a powerful tool to help promote greater understanding of a First Nation’s education initiatives and causes,” said Leslee White-Eye, FNWSC Structural Readiness Co-ordinator. “As technology changes at such a fast pace, it’s important to stay on top of key tips of the trade. We hope this session was helpful to education leaders who are working so hard on behalf of their communities.”

Thursday’s workshop was the latest in a series of webinars the FNWSC has held since its launch in 2016. Previous online events have featured panelists from all over the world who have shared knowledge about Indigenous evaluation methodologies, land-based learning and curriculum design that honours ways of knowing and education law development.

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

Through team meetings, members share information and practices to help communities overcome challenges — including the current provincial framework and curriculum, K-8 schooling, students being transferred to district school boards  — and frame First Nation curriculum in culturally appropriate ways that puts family well-being at the centre.   

COVID-19 & First Nation Schools’ Physical Education Curriculum as a Long-Term Strategy for Disease Prevention

LESLEE WHITE-EYE is 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[1] 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 Curriculum currently 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. 

[1] 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 for a diversity of publications, resources and other information related to Indigenous health.

Education Governance Administration Resources Key to Progress in Education Law-Making

Scholarship money concept. Coins in jar with money stack step growing growth saving money investment

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.

Why an Education Governance Framework Matters in First Nation Education Transformation

Photo by Magele-picture from Adobe Stock

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 territory[1]and 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 nation[2]terms 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.

[1]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.

[2]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. 

FN Governance Readiness is a Community-Driven Exercise

Photo by CQF-Avocat on

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?