The mysterious hand of the Canadian Indian Act is still present in First Nations communities, and is particularly evident in the realm of education. Until the late 1960s, schooling for First Nations children and youth was essentially “assimilationist.” “The primary purpose of formal education,” as stated in the report of the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, “was to indoctrinate Aboriginal peoples into a Christian, European world view, thereby ‘civilizing’ them” (Canada 1996, vol. 3, chap. 5, 2). Since the publication of “Indian Control of Indian Education” by the National Indian Brotherhood in 1972, over 40 years ago, policy changes in the form of federal-local education agreements, authorized under SGAs, for the most part have only reinforced the status quo of top-down, albeit partially delegated, federal control over education (Fallon and Paquette 2012, 3).
Conformity with mainstream society, competition, and preparation for the workforce were viewed as the only way forward for all Canadian children and youth, including Aboriginals. Such assumptions effectively limited the scope of First Nations children’s educational, cultural, and social life by failing to recognize the legitimacy of Aboriginal holistic learning and indigenous knowledge (Marie Battiste 2002). Policies advocating the assimilation of Aboriginal students and, later on, their integration into provincial or non-Aboriginal schools were the prescriptions for “normal” educational provisions and practices deemed necessary to integrate children and youth into a hierarchically ordered, pluralist state (J.D. Moon 1993 ).
Modifications to the Indian Act regime merely perpetuate the status quo in terms of federal dominance over First Nations peoples. In such a hierarchical social order, students are being prepared for a world still dominated by federal officials or indirectly managed by a chief and band council acting at the behest of the agents of non-Aboriginal society. Whatever their traditional authority might have been,” American political scientist J. Donald Moon once wrote, the chief has “come to owe his power mainly to his relationships to the ruling stratum” (Moon, 15).
Managed devolution of power over education to First Nations amount to extending federal oversight in education governance. Authority is delegated sufficient to meet the minimum standard of First Nations control in principle, but not in actual practice. Since about 1980, federal policy has promoted First Nations control of education in the context of a model of integration in which First Nations students are permitted to enrol in provincial school systems offering educational services and programs.
In addition, First Nations control over education has been gradually ceded to delegated education authorities as part of a larger strategy of fostering economic development in First Nations communities. Although presented as a means of decolonization, the federal and provincial governments have promoted self-government and local control primarily as a way of encouraging First Nations to give up traditional ways and enter the market society. Such experiments in devolution, as Gerald Fallon and Jerry Paquette aptly observe, have merely substituted a new form of neo-colonialism” that is “deeply rooted in a denial of First Nations peoples’ capacity to formulate their own conceptions of person and society” (2012, 12).
Recent federal-local agreements negotiated as part of the devolution movement in Nova Scotia and British Columbia look promising, but — through control of the purse — actually might perpetuate the hegemony of the federal and provincial governments over First Nations communities. With a few exceptions, the SGAs provide limited devolution of power framed within what Fallon and Paquette term “the municipal model of self-government.” Some administrative autonomy is ceded, but only within limits set by outside educational authorities controlled by federal and, mostly, provincial governments.
Despite appropriating the public language of First Nations empowerment, the real changes necessary to extend authentic “Aboriginalization” of education seem to be absent on the ground in First Nations communities and their schools. A decade ago, a report by Cynthia Wesley-Esquimault aptly entitled Reclaiming the Circle of Learning and written for the Ontario Assembly of Chiefs, warned that history was in danger of repeating itself in that recent shifts in the direction of devolution did not amount to fundamental change (Wesley-Esquimaux, 2004).
The proposed 2013 First Nations Education Act was the latest mutation of devolution. Under the guise of supporting devolution, the federal government proposed to establish what amounted to a new system appropriating the provincial school board model, with significant strings attached. Despite the friendly sounding rhetoric, the legislation sought to fill the supposed void at the centre of the “non-system” of First Nations education (Canada 2013c). Confronted with what was depicted as a “fractured mirror” in education governance, Ottawa opted to nudge First Nations in the direction of creating more confederated boards to manage the more than 550 First Nations schools scattered across Canada’s ten provinces.
Introducing a school board model, however, likely would curtail, rather than advance, the movement to community-based schools. A study for the Canadian School Boards Association, conducted from December 2010 to November 2011, raised red flags about the impact of centralization on the state of local democratic control in Canada’s provincially regulated school boards. Surveying national trends over the past two decades, the authors conclude that “the significance of the school district apparatus in Canada has diminished as provincial governments have enacted an aggressive centralization agenda” (Sheppard et al. 2013, 42).
In another paper, Gerald Galway and a Memorial University research team claim that democratic school board governance is in serious jeopardy because trustees and superintendents now operate in a politicized policy environment that is “antagonistic to local governance” (Galway et al. 2013, 27–28). Elected school boards subscribing to a corporate policy-making model have also tended to stifle trustee autonomy and to narrow the scope of local, community decision-making (Paul W. Bennett 2012).
The 2013 First Nations Education Act was rejected for good reason. Proposing conventional school board governance in First Nations communities will only impose a new set of system-wide standards and accountabilities while withholding curriculum autonomy and thwarting the introduction of holistic learning, Indigenous knowledge, and heritage languages.
*Adapted from Paul W. Bennett and Jonathan Anuik, Policy Research Paper, Northern Policy Institute (Sudbury and Thunder Bay, ON, forthcoming, September 2014).
What lessons can be learned from the rejection of the 2013 Canadian First Nations Education Act? Is the conventional image of First Nations education governance as a “fractured mirror” an accurate one? Does the shelving of the federal intiative signal the death knell for top-down devolution? What’s stopping policy-makers from building a new model from the First Nations communities upward?