Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press
Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt, right, and Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo visit a seventh-grade classroom in October 2013 just before the federal government released a draft of education reform legislation. Valcourt is holding a copy of the Royal Proclamation, which celebrated its 250th anniversary this year.

First Nations Call Federal Education Act a Bust

Martha Troian

Despite months of work put in by members of a Blue Ribbon Panel on aboriginal education during 2011 and early 2012, federal legislation on the table for 2014 bears little resemblance to the recommendations put forth at the beginning of last year.

The First Nations Education Act is being called the blueprint for educational success for First Nation communities—at least that’s how Ottawa sees it. The ministry of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development says the legislation will put control of First Nation education into the hands of First Nations themselves.

But First Nations from coast-to-coast feel quite differently and are vehemently opposed to the federal legislation, which could be in place by September 2014. Designed to improve high school graduation rates for First Nation students, the act will basically let the goverment set and apply standards for schools on reserves, critics allege. From the grassroots all the way up to Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo, Indigenous Peoples in Canada say the act completely misses the mark. 

“The current Federal Proposal for a Bill for First Nation Education is not acceptable to First Nations,” Atleo wrote in an open letter to Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Minister Bernard Valcourt in November, soon after the legislation was introduced. “We must work together on a mutual plan that fully respects and reflects partnership, that is consistent with Treaty relationships, and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and re-affirmed in countless studies and recommendations.”

He reiterated what First Nations have been saying all along about their educational needs: First Nations must retain control of their children’s education; funding is allocated up-front, which is not the case in this current bill; First Nations languages and education must be supported; oversight must not be provided solely by the federal government, and going forward must involve “meaningful engagement,” according to Atleo’s open letter.

Instead of that, the new legislation gives First Nations three options: They can partner with a provincial school board, form a First Nation school board or continue to operate a community school. The act gives the minister of aboriginal affairs power over these schools and imposes third-party managament if the department deems a school is not performing up to federal standards.

First Nation leaders and communities feel that this approach perpetuates the mistakes of the past, rather than solving current problems. The legislation employs a top-down approach, they said, unilaterally imposing a process, and with no real consultation. The act is also silent on funding, a big concern for First Nations given that communities are grossly underfunded compared to off-reserve schools. First Nation leaders and organizations have come together to call out the government.

“I think there’s going to be increased pressure on the federal government as time unfolds,” said executive director Deborah Jeffrey, executive director of the First Nations Education Steering Committee, a British Columbia–based organization. “I think there’s this growing frustration, so where’s the tipping point?”

First Nations in British Columbia have already worked together for more than two decades to create their own comprehensive education system founded on First Nations’ languages and cultures. In 2012, the steering committee signed a tripartite education framework agreement with the federal and provincial governments, giving education jurisdiction to the steering committee for on-reserve schools. First Nations in Ontario, New Brunswick, Alberta and Manitoba are working to establish similar education agreements.

RELATED: B.C. Schools Agreement Gives On-Reserve Students Funding Parity

But First Nation people such as Jeffrey are deeply concerned about the lifespan of existing education agreements, which she fears will be overruled by the First Nation Education Act, especially once the agreements expire. Valcourt, however, said the new legislation will not apply to self-governing First Nations that have adopted their own laws related to education.

“The Government of Canada does not intend to displace the positive partnerships and progress achieved under the various education Memorandum of Understandings across Canada,” the aboriginal affairs ministry told ICTMN in an e-mail. “The intention is to build on many of the education standards, supports and services that have been built through these partnership arrangements.”

AFN Regional Chief for Nova Scotia and Newfoundland Morley Googoo isn't buying it. He holds the education portfolio for the AFN and warns that these agreements will soon be operating with less government funding. Self-governing groups will be expected to follow the feds’ own-source revenue policy, Googoo said, meaning they'll contribute to costs out of their own budgets. Own-source revenue contributions are expected to increase as the policy is gradually being phased in, in all agreements.

“They’re getting away from their fiduciary responsibility and expecting First Nations to start paying,” Googoo said.

Last July 12 the government quietly released a Blueprint for Legislation, an annotated outline of the proposed approach. There was no mention of education agreements in the blueprint. First Nations did not have direct input into the initial draft of the First Nations Education Act; they are merely being encouraged to provide their input to inform the draft legislation prior to its being introduced in Parliament. This does not go far enough, indigenous leaders said.

“You can’t go and create legislation on a failing grade of your consultation process,” said Googoo.

Many feel that the early stages of the legislative process leading up to this point left out key stakeholders from the beginning.

“Three provinces weren’t part of the federal discussions for the national task force, so that shows in itself that there was a flaw in the process,” said Sandi Urban Hall, president of the Canadian School Board Association, referring to the National Education Panel that set out to improve education standards for First Nation children in reserve schools. The panel was a joint creation of the department of aboriginal ffairs and the AFN. Several First Nation organizations, including the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, did not support the panel, instead stating that the legislation would only dimish First Nation treaty obligations with respect to education.

Recently the Canadian School Board Association weighed in on the issue, also criticizing the government’s approach. The school board association represents just over 250 school boards, serving more than three million elementary and secondary school students across Canada.

“There is no need for the federal government to rush into this legislation,” said Googoo. “The current sections of the Indian Act have been place since 1951, and now the government wants to change it in a period of months.”

First Nations have reacted so strongly to the proposed legislation because of historical imposed federal policy that led to the residential school system, says Chief Googoo.

“You can’t say, ‘We’re in it for the best of your interest,’ ” he told ICTMN. “That’s what you said when you took our kids away.”

Some First Nations have gone so far as to create their own legislation.

“We did ask to be excluded from the new legislation that is coming,” said Chief Fred Rabbit Carrier with Treaty 7 Management. “Currently we’re in development of a First Nation education act.”

The Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, too, urged other First Nation groups to create their own education blueprint.

But Aboriginal Affairs said there is nothing to worry about and that the government has committed itself to an intensive consultation process. Meanwhile, Googoo said, the AFN will stand behind First Nation communities.

“If we don’t feel we’ve had proper input and First Nation control over First Nation education, then we know we’re doomed for failure again,” Googoo said, adding that First Nations with agreements giving them control over education see better results in the community.

“We need the regions to really decide what the next step will be, because we can’t lose focus. The objective of both parties should be that child,” Googoo said. “You’re going to have resistance, and what that resistance will look like, I don’t know.”

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Newfoundland Mikmaq's picture
Newfoundland Mikmaq
Submitted by Newfoundland Mikmaq on
Its great to talk about High School graduation for First Nations but that work needs to start in pre-school and with parents first. FASD is a real problem in the smaller and less funded reserve schools. It is insulting to First Nation children who are living with real live barriers to their moving forward. Start providing enough funding for special needs, challenging needs, music and physical education teachers. Provide resources for the teachers in the system that are dealing with classes with 20 children 6 of whom have high level FASD and no individual support. If these were not First Nation children the supports would be there and in fact are there. Get real if you want to make a difference in the lives of these children. Come out from behind your $ 1000.00 desks in Ottawa and visit these reserves and ask yourself if you would be satisfied to send your children or grandchildren to one of these schools. Without the professionals and the resources First Nations children will never be equal in Canada. They need qualified teachers and resource people who understand them. It will cost big money no doubt and time to educate First Nations teachers from their own communities but nothing good happens fast or cheaply. Please, please do not give lip serve and promise children that things will be better if you don't mean it. We already have a generation of disillusioned youth who were promised a better life and a chance to live as equals in this country. Don't do it again. Do it right, to ensure that the generations to come can live that dream of a warm, safe, and happy life, in their country that respects them for who they are and what they bring to the fabric of what Canada should be.