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. 

First Nations Education Funding at a Crossroads

First Nations with Schools Collective examine funding gaps as a factor inhibiting First Nation education systems from addressing First Nation student achievement gaps.

As the Ford government prepares to announce their education budget March 24, 2021, First Nations are left awaiting their school funding fate as the two budgets are now inextricably linked

Every year in many First Nation schools on-reserve in Ontario, teachers decide if they will pursue another year of teaching in the community or seek employment at provincially funded school boards where they can be paid up to twice as much. These decisions become more difficult for teachers who want to remain in the community as the wage gap between on-reserve teachers and public school board teachers widens year over year.   

This lack of education funding parity persists across all First Nation education systems on-reserve in Canada.

Teachers often enter First Nation systems as first year teachers with little experience and leave just at the time when instructional skills are firming up, three or four years later, around the same time the wage difference is too great to ignore.  

You can see the ripple effect of this high turnover on students and families on First Nations who must constantly adapt to new, inexperienced staff.  The achievement gap never gets addressed.  

As the federal government’s new Interim Funding Approach finishes its 2nd year of implementation this month, First Nation leaders find themselves anticipating a Ford government budget announcement. 

Why? The new First Nation education funding formula is now modeled on Ontario’s Grants for Student Needs (GSN), the provincial formula used to decide yearly funding allocations to district school boards.   

An Ontario change in class sizes could dramatically impact overall funding shortages already felt in First Nation schools resulting in even less classroom supports, less funding to pay teachers, and less special education supports.  

FNWSC is calling on the government to remove the cap in funding and move with earnest in fulfilling First Nation children rights to a quality education.  

There is much to unpack here.  This will be the focus of a series of blogs over the next eight weeks. 

Join FNWSC feature contributors beginning March 18 as they explore the long-term impacts of consistent year over year shortages, funding caps and how the new comparability model measures up as an alternative.

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

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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?