First Nations Education in Canada has been the focus of a great deal of controversy and discussion in recent months. The latest proposed “solution” put forth, the First Nation Education Act (Bill C-33), was built around an enhanced federal financial contribution. The bill was, however, ultimately rejected by many first nations and subsequently abandoned by the government. In our Northern Policy Institute research report, “Picking up the Pieces,” Dr. Jonathan Anuik and I demonstrate why the education reform proposed in the proposed Bill C-33 missed the mark.
More money in the form of increased capital funding might have brought modest gains to on-reserve schooling, but replacing one bureaucracy with another rarely changes the state of education or improves the quality of student learning at the school or community level.
A community school-based approach, respectful of what Indigenous scholars such as Marie Battiste term the “learning spirit,” that supports a real shift in the locus of decision-making, stands a far better chance of making a difference and improving the achievement of all Indigenous children and youth.
Education governance is a contested democratic terrain. Provincial district school boards across Canada are currently facing a public crisis of confidence, and the proposed Act ran the risk of perpetuating that problem by extending it into First Nations communities. Publicly elected trustees and school-level administrators now voice serious concerns, most recently in a 2013 Canadian School Boards Association study, that “centralization” is slowly choking-off local-decision-making and rendering elected boards powerless. Simply enabling the establishment of school boards may well reinforce that centralization impulse.
First Nations control over education now involves a transformation enabling First Nations to develop educational programs and practices rooted in Indigenous knowledge systems and consistent with Aboriginal ways of learning, exemplified recently in what First Nations call Holistic Lifelong Learning Models. However, instead of accepting the centrality of First Nations knowledge systems as an essential pre-condition to discussion, Ottawa focused on advancing a plan more narrowly focused on improving employability skills, reflected in student achievement and graduation rates.
The declaration between the federal government and the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) on February 2014 speaks of “mutual accountability” yet insisted upon a core curriculum that “meets or exceeds provincial standards,” requiring students to meet minimum attendance standards, teachers to be officially certified, and schools to award “widely-recognized” diplomas and certificates. Following the declaration, a small group of First Nations people, sparked by Blood First Nations activist Twila Eagle-Bear Singer, began wearing “blue dots” symbolizing the tradition of exclusion. Subsequently, First Nations leaders across Canada not party to the national agreement coalesced, forcing the AFNs Chief Shawn Atleo to resign and the rejection of Bill C-33.
With the federal bill broken into pieces, we propose an alternative model for First Nations schools that we term “Community School-Based Management” renewal. That approach embraces a mode of decision-making that has much in common with First Nations ways and practices, and most notably the “Talking Circle” tradition of the Mi’kmaq.
Pioneered in the Edmonton Public Schools in the 1980s and now adopted by the World Bank in its international education initiatives, the essential concept of “school-based management” would seem to be more in accord with the aspirations of First Nations for a greater measure of self-government in education.
The First Nations population is not only young but growing rapidly, creating a sense of urgency. Forty-two percent of the country’s registered Indian population is 19 years of age or younger as compared to 25% of the Canadian population as a whole. By 2026, the on-reserve First Nation population of 407,300 in 2000 is expected to increase by 64% to 667,900.
Educating First Nations children and youth is best left to communities and families themselves. One promising example is the Mi`kmaw Kina`matnewey (MK), a Nova Scotian Mi`kmaw school authority of autonomous schools founded in 1992, formally recognized by the federal and provincial governments in 1997, and now consisting of a dozen Mi’kmaw First Nations. It is, what MK negotiator John Donnelly aptly describes as “an overnight success — years in-the-making.”
We urge the Canadian government to invest in supporting and expanding promising community-led initiatives like the MK involving teachers, parents, and families outside of the existing span of administrative control to achieve longer-term goals of improved literacy, academic achievement, and life chances.
It’s time to pick up the pieces and start over again. Community school-based renewal rather than bureaucratic reform will build sustainable school communities, unlock the First Nations “learning spirit,” and truly engage children and youth on and off First Nations reserves.
Where did the Stephen Harper Government go wrong with the proposed First Nations Education Act? What can be learned from the toppling of National Chief Shawn Atleo and the demise of Bill C-33? Why do federal authorities look to bureaucratic solutions and put such faith in introducing school boards into reserve communities? Is it possible to seed a “community-schools” model and build upon First Nations ways of learning? If so, what would be a realistic timeline for achieving improved student life chances?