Archive for the ‘First Nations Education’ Category


Newly awakened citizens are still coming forward in the wake of the June 2021 discovery of buried children at Kamloops Residential School to report that they were never taught during their K-12 education about residential schools and their horrible legacy. That was definitely true twenty-five years ago, but less so today because of gradual, incremental changes in provincial social studies curricula. The massive 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission report made it one of its highest priority calls to action and that did inspire a wave of First Nations, Metis, and Inuit (FNMI) curriculum initiatives. What took so long is worthy of closer scrutiny and Ontario provides insights into what stood in the way of such changes,

Mandating curriculum change does not necessarily lead to effective, consistent or discernable modifications in teaching practice. Implementation challenges can thwart policy guidelines and directives and it’s critical to assess the gaps between the official pronounced curricula, the formally sanctioned teaching resources, compulsory course offerings, and the actual received curricula.

What stood in the way of implementing Indigenous topics and perspectives in our classrooms? Some revealing answers to that troubling question are found in two rather obscure but vitally important pieces of educational research on the fundamental challenges of effecting FNMI curriculum change in two different provinces, Ontario and Alberta. Studying Paul Joseph Andre Chaput’s M.A. thesis, “Native Studies in Ontario High Schools” (Queen’s University, Geography, 2012), demonstrates why Ontario curriculum reform fell short from 1975 to 2012. A more recent July 2018 article, examining Alberta social studies teachers’ resistance to teaching Indigenous perspectives (David Scott and Raphael Gani), provides a few more of the critical pieces needed to provide a more thorough and reliable answer.

Since the TRC, provincial and territorial governments have been entrusted with a very specific mandate — to make the history of residential schools, Treaties, and historical and contemporary contributions of First Nations, Metis and Inuit a mandatory educational requirement for all K-12 students (Call to Action, 62.i). While it emanated from the TRC, the whole idea of teaching self-standing FNMI courses and cross-curricular perspectives was hardly new to most familiar with social studies curricula.

The Ontario Ministry of Education has invested considerable time, energy and resources into the creation and implementation of a “Native Studies” high school curriculum from the early 1970s to the present.  Its initial iteration, the 1975 People of Native Ancestry (PONA) curriculum guide and documents, were, in large part, an outgrowth of the ‘Indigenous cultural revival’ that swept Canada after the fist wave of closures of the residential schools. That curriculum was also generated, especially since the passage of the 1982 Constitutional Act, in periodic collaboration with advisers and educators representing the First Nations, Metis and Inuit peoples.

The fundamental shortcoming of Ontario’s initial PONA Native Studies initiative was that it was entirely focused on creating and implementing a self-standing set of optional social studies courses. By the fall of 1999, the provincial curricula had expanded to a suite of ten individual Native Studies high school courses spanning Grades 9 to 12. Proposals from the Northern Native Language Project (NNLP) to offer up to half the instruction in higher level courses in an Indigenous language were resisted, then shot down by federal authorities in Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) more committed to advancing English literacy and raising graduation rates. While the initial Native Studies courses were innovative at the time, they were only offered in 39 Ontario high schools and in significant number in only four of those schools between 1999 and 2006.

Growing public demand in Ontario for improved Indigenous education, the Ministry of Education responded in 2006-07 with a new, broader strategy known as the Ontario First Nation, Metis and Inuit (FNMI) Policy Framework intended to expand Native Studies content in schools right across the province. It proposed the implementation of “quality Native Studies education,” to Indigenous and non-Indigenous students, with the aspirational goal of raising the awareness of all Ontarians of Indigenous perspectives, histories, and cultures. While educators expressed openness to including such perspectives and teaching about residential schools, Ontario respondents were reportedly “uncertain about what to teach and how.”

Indigenous residential schools began to pop-up in Ontario classroom resources. From 2000 onward, Ontario’s core history textbooks such as The Canadian Challenge (Don Quinlan and others, Oxford 2008) started to include short references to the Indigenous residential schools, and that expanded following Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s 2008 formal apology for the abuses students suffered in Canada’s residential schools. One of the most widely used textbooks, Creating Canada: A History of Canada – 1914 to the Present (Jill Collyer and others, McGraw-Hill-Ryerson 2018), identified the abuses, referenced the 2006 financial compensation package, featured Harper’s apology, and gave expression to rising demands for further initiatives addressing unresolved problems affecting Canada’s Indigenous peoples.

Yet Ontario’s overall 2007 FNMI curriculum initiative fell short of achieving its rather lofty objectives.  No target dates were set for implementation of the curriculum in all schools and critics pounced on the policy’s more explicit commitment to raising Indigenous student outcomes and graduation rates.  Nurturing of the revitalization of Indigenous cultures took a back seat to what were labelled “neo-liberal” educational goals for FNMI students.  The policy’s sated key priority lent credence to such claims. That was to, in the words of the document, “close the gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students in the areas of literacy and numeracy, retention of students in school, graduation rates, and advancement to postsecondary studies” by the year 2016. 

Educating students about Indigenous concerns and fostering cultural sensitivity may have been goals of the FMNI curriculum, but there was no explicit commitment nor benchmarks for assessing progress. Increased funding from 2006-07 to 2010 did grow the number of schools offering Native Studies courses from 51 to 267, courses offerings jumped from 75 to 478, and more school boards offered the courses. Number of students enrolled in the courses rose from 2,216 (2007-08) or 0.31 % of all high school students (716,103) to 1.14% by 2009-10.  That’s still less than the proportion of Ontarians of Indigenous origins estimated to be 2 per cent. Training teachers adept at working collaboratively with Indigenous homes and communities also surfaced as a problem. Small enrolment courses did not prove financially sustainable, so effective 2011-2012, the minimum number of enrolled students per course was doubled from 6 to 12. Even academic allies such as P.J.A. Chaput mused about whether the courses were still too dependent on provincial funding to be sustainable long-term in Ontario.

The pattern of implementation and uptake was remarkably similar in Alberta. The Alberta Education department made the teaching of First Nations, Metis and Inuit perspectives a key pillar of the 2005 social studies curriculum. Introducing a curriculum mandate did not assure its implementation and, according to researchers David Scott and Raphael Gani, met with a combination of ambivalence and passive resistance,  

Over the eighteen years of FNMI curriculum implementation, Alberta educators at various stages of their careers offered up three main explanations as to why they either resisted or dodged taking responsibility for integrating FNMI into their teaching. Scott and Gani neatly summarized those rationales:

  1. No perspectives can be identified because of the highly diverse nature of Indigenous peoples and their communities;
  2. Only educators who are Indigenous can authentically offer insights into or teach Aboriginal perspectives;
  3. Prioritizing Indigenous perspectives is problematic because “all perspectives deserve equal treatment.”

The most common explanations, according to Scott and Gani, actually mask a more all- encompassing explanation. Most social studies educators, they claim, embrace worldviews and apply curricular frameworks that preclude integrating FNMI perspectives. If and when Indigenous residential schools are taught, it is in isolation or simply in passing because it is not central to the theme or prevailing narrative in social studies curricula.


Ontario’s latest curriculum revision during 2018-19 put renewed focus on implementing the TRC call to action though a revamped First Nations, Metis and Inuit (FNMI) Studies curriculum.  Beginning in 2019, Native Studies (2000) was supplanted by the FNMI curriculum with an emphasis on a broader range of learning outcomes, tilting more to social and emotional well-being. A new youth development framework, Stepping Stones (2012) was adopted that de-emphasized improved academic outcomes. Appropriating such models from modern social psychology and youth development may well prove equally problematic because Indigenous education researchers such as Lindsay Morcom have expressed concern that they are drawn from outside the realm of Indigenous wisdom and experience

Much has improved in the Ontario curriculum when it comes to teaching Indigenous content and perspectives. Teaching units including FNMI topics and perspectives are more common in mainstream courses in latest Ontario curriculum from Grades 1 to 10.  Ontario’s new FNMI curriculum (Grades 9 to 12), revised in 2019, is, in many ways exemplary because it offers a comprehensive, detailed, historically-sound, and fairly challenging set of ten high school Social Studies and English courses. There’s one big problem – none of the new First Nations, Metis and Inuit courses are mandatory for Ontario high school students. While residential schools are in the current curriculum, it is still entirely possible for students to graduate from high school without exposure to a dedicated course allowing for more detailed analysis of the residential school tragedy and its enduring impact. 

What took so long for teaching about Indigenous Residential Schools to find a place in Ontario’s mandatory Canadian history courses? Did the earlier Native Studies elective courses contribute to the problem?  Would it have been better, in hindsight, to put all of those resources into integrating Indigenous content and perspectives throughout the curriculum?

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A sixteen-year-old Nova Scotia high school student, Emma Stevens, has taken flight with her Mi’kmaw language version of the Beatles classic, Blackbird. It’s beginning to look like a real-life recreation of A Star is Born. Since the first performance was posted on You Tube on April 25, the beautiful and haunting cover of Paul McCartney’s song has been seen or heard more than one million times. She has performed at a UN Indigenous Peoples conference in Nairobi, Kenya, and McCartney has sung her praises.  An editorial in The Chronicle Herald urged all Nova Scotians to log in and catch her performing the song.

Surveying the initial world-wide media coverage, there was little or no acknowledgement or recognition that Emma’s talent was nurtured and developed in a Mi’kmaw school in Nova Scotia’s Eskasoni First Nation. Only now are we beginning to see that a student performing in her native language with full musical accompaniment did not happen overnight. Her band music teacher, Carter Chiasson, was an inspiration and supported her at every stage and the video was shot by Grade 12 Multimedia course students.

Without diminishing Emma’s amazing achievement, it was also made possible by the teaching, mentoring and support she found at Allison Bernard Memorial High School, the jewel in the autonomous, Indigenous-run, Mi`kmaw Kina`matnewey (MK) network of schools. She is, after all, the product of a Mi’kmaw language music program in a school outside the public school system in Nova Scotia.

Her breakout success is, in many ways, another example of recent achievements that have catapulted Nova Scotia’s First Nations to the forefront in the national movement for Indigenous control over education. It’s been forty years since the first Mi’kmaw- English bilingual education program was established at Potolek, known then as Chapel Island, and twenty-three years since the formation of the MK, a First Nation education authority managed by the Mi`kmaq and funded by the federal Department of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs.

Emma’s high school is one of the better-known MK schools, operating in twelve of the province`s 13 Mi`kmaw communities, and enrolling some 3,000 students province-wide. Mi’kmaw schools like Allison Bernard Memorial High School have significantly raised graduation rates for First Nations students. While the proportion of Canadian on-reserve adults under 25 with a high school diploma barely rose (from 25 to 30 per cent) from 1996 to 2006, Atlantic Canada bucked that trend, rising from 55 per cent to 65 per cent. By 2016-17, some 89.6 per cent of Grade 12 students in MK schools completed their graduation year.

Mi’kmaw band schools reported graduation rates tend to be inflated because they are based upon Grade 12 completion rates rather than the proportion of students entering grade 9 or 10 who secure a high school diploma. Even so, the rise in academic attainment levels is real and a clear sign of the enormous potential of First Nations-run community schools to change students’ educational outcomes and life chances.

The recent success of Mi’kmaw schools has not gone unnoticed. Former Toronto Globe and Mail Education reporter Jennifer Lewington looked closely at the Mi’kmaw model and observed in a 2012 Education Canada article that Mi’kmaw student success was “winning national attention as a possible model for First Nation self-governance in education.”

Schools like Emma’s take a more holistic view of learning and achievement and this is reflected in Mi’kmaw arts and music programs. First Nation Elders and scholars espouse a different and broader conception of learning, drawing upon insights from the First Nations Holistic Lifelong Learning Model, advocated by First Nations scholar Marie Battiste.

Teachers, principals, parents, families, and communities are all mentors and nurturing guides responsible for their children’s achievement in all aspects of lifelong learning. One example is the use of the ‘Talking Circle’ to discuss and resolve issues, respecting that tradition in Mi’kmaw culture and spirituality.

Emma’s school lies at the heart of Eskasoni First Nation and its annual high school graduation ceremonies are community-wide celebrations. School leaders like Principal Newell Johnson and Language and Culture consultant Katani Julian take great pride in their remarkable recent progress in delivering language immersion and other culturally-based programs and activities.

The success rate of schools like Allison Bernard Memorial High School impressed Scott Haldane, chair of a 2012 federal First Nations governance review panel, and he trumpeted the benefits of this First Nations-run model for students in his final report. It was also a key factor in the March 2019 renewal of the MK funding agreement for 10 years, representing an investment of $600 million going forward.

Students at Allison Bernard High School are far are more engaged because of pedagogy and curriculum more attuned to Mi’kmaw traditions. Emma’s breakout hit could well be a further breakthrough for Nova Scotia’s Mi’kmaw schools.

(An earlier version of this post appeared in The Chronicle Herald, 13 July 2019).

What can we learn from the overnight success of a young Mi’kmaw songbird?  What was the role of the Mi’kmaw language and music program? Are Indigenous students educated and immersed in their own language and culture more motivated to learn? Is there potential for other Canadian provinces and American states to find similar success? 

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A Thunder Bay Ontario coroner’s inquest report into the deaths of seven First Nations students, issued on June 28, 2016, seemed to inject a sense of urgency into the whole debate over the sad state of Indigenous education. It also gave fresh impetus to public calls for concrete, meaningful changes in First Nations high schools, particularly in northern Ontario. Six months later, my latest Northern Policy Institute report, After the Healing, explores why so little has happened and proposes an immediate action plan.

dfchsexteriorcbcGoing well beyond its strict mandate to rule on cases of death, the five-person jury, presided over by coroner Dr. David Eden, delivered a total of 145 far-reaching recommendations and even set out the laudable goal of building a high school in each of northern Ontario’s mostly small, isolated reserve communities. That alone is a monumental undertaking that would take massive investments and years to achieve.

The state of education on most of Canada’s reserves is dire, but outside observers, including C.D. Howe Institute researchers Barry Anderson and John Richards, tend to reach sweeping conclusions that do not apply to all First Nations-run schools, particularly the two largest Northern Nishnawbe Education Council (NNEC) schools in the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, covering much of northern Ontario.

Over the past seven years, 2009-10 to 2015-16, graduation rates at the two NNEC high schools, Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School (DFCHS) and Pelican Falls First Nations High School (PFFNHS) have risen steadily from 53.6 % to 76.0% this past year. Out of 424 students registered in Grade 12 over that period, 261 (61.5 %) achieved a high school certificate, better than most on-reserve high schools.

In the 2015-16 school year, while the Thunder Bay inquest dominated the news, both DFCHS and PFFNS recorded their highest graduation rates ever, at 64.7 % (33 of 51) and 100 % (24 of 24) respectively.

Given a funding gap of 25 to 30 per cent per student and the adverse media attention, the label of “failing” schools does not seem to square with the facts.

Yet much more needs to be done to immediately improve the quality of education and student life for First Nations students attending Thunder Bay’s Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School and other First Nations-run schools in the Ontario North.

My earlier September 2014 NPI policy paper Picking Up the Pieces supported the full transition to First Nations control of education through Community-School Based Management vested in Indigenous education authorities such as the NNEC.

dfcriverceremonyporterInvesting in First Nations high schools remains the best way to capture the true “Learning Spirit,” to embrace a more holistic, community-based philosophy of lifelong learning, to raise student performance levels, and prepare graduates for healthier, more satisfying and productive lives.

Fixing the problems threatening the very existence of the NNEC First Nations high schools, DFCHS and PFFNHS, is the new imperative. Taking action now will not only ensure that First Nations teens attending NNEC high schools will return home alive, but better prepared for successful lives.

The Thunder Bay Coroner’s Jury bit-off much more than can be digested and implemented in a timely and effective fashion. My report focuses more explicitly on addressing the needs of students making the transition to high school in Thunder Bay, Sioux Lookout, and other northern Ontario towns and cities.

My latest report, After the Healing, presents a five-point action plan, urging policy-makers to:

  • close the funding gap for NNEC and NAN schools;
  • design, fund and build Dennis Franklin Cromarty transition lodgings to be known as the Student Living Centre;
  • re-build and expand student support services to smooth the transition to city/town life;
  • establish a Race Relations Commissioner and officers in cities and larger towns with sizable populations of First Nations youth and students; and
  • expand and fortify ‘Student Success’ curriculum initiatives based upon Indigenous ways of knowing and learning.

‘Focus, focus, focus’ is now what’s needed as we embark on renewing First Nations education. Fewer and more immediate concrete actions are the best guarantor of a brighter future for First Nations students attending band-operated high schools.

Why is there so much talk and so little action on the First Nations high school education front?  Who is coordinating and monitoring the implementation of the Thunder Bay inquest recommendations?  After six months, what has changed at Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School, the prime focus of the inquest? Is it because the mere mention of “residential school” (whatever its form and leadership) sends people running off in the opposite direction? 


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Shannen Koostachin’s Children’s Campaign for a ‘safe and comfy’ school in Attawapiskat First Nation was deeply moving. It spawned Shannen’s Dream, a Canadian youth-driven movement dedicated addressing the glaring educational inequities and alerting policy-makers to the urgent need to improve funding of on-reserve First Nations education. With the support of Northern Ontario MP Charlie Angus, Shannen got her school, was nominated for the International Children’s Peace Prize, and then featured in Alanis Obomsawin’s 2013 documentary film Hi-Ho Mistahey. 

ShanneninActionWhile reading the latest C.D. Howe Institute Commentary, Students in Jeopardy (January 2016) written by Barry Anderson and John Richards, a chill came over me. With clinical precision, the two authors document, once again, the abysmal First Nations graduation rates and the apparent ‘failures’ of what are termed “Band-Operated Schools.” What, I wondered, had Anderson and Richards learned from Shannen and her youth crusade for First Nations community-based schools?

For those seemingly fixated on documenting the “deficits” and proposing structural reforms in First Nations education, a refresher may be in order. In 2007, Shannen was 13 and in Grade 8, having spent her entire elementary years in squalid, poorly heated portables. When the proposal for a new Attawapiskat school was shelved, she and her Grade 8 classmates stood up for the younger students behind them. Utilizing letter writing, then Facebook and You Tube, Shannen’s children’s crusade went over the heads of politicians and bureaucrats to get their message across in the elementary schools of Southern Ontario, union halls, then on Parliament Hill and even in Geneva, Switzerland.

Tragically, in 2010, Shannen was killed in a highway accident on one of her long trips in the Near North, but her Dream lived on. Taking up the youth campaign, MP Charlie Angus pushed for a new school and succeeded in securing passage of a February 2012 House of Commons resolution to “put reserve schools on par with non-reserve provincial schools.”  In September 2014, fourteen years after the old school was closed because of a diesel fuel leak, a new Attawapiskat school opened with brightly lit classrooms, a library, a music room, a home economics department, and a gymnasium.  Without the “outraged energy” of Shannen’s campaign it may not have happened at all.

Shannen’s educational journey is regrettably all too common. She and her older sister, Serena, graduated from the Attawapiskat school and were compelled to move hundreds of kilometres away to New Liskeard, Ontario, for high school. While campaigning for better schools, she travelled far and wide and saw, first hand, the gross inequities in schooling, especially between schools in suburban Toronto and those in First Nations communities.

Completing high school in  First Nations communities requires incredible persistence. One of Shaneen’s fellow students, Holly Nakogee, attending Grade 12 in Attawapiskat in 2014-15, was typical of the true survivors.  After losing her closest sister Dakota following  childbirth, she moved south three times for high school, only to return ‘homesick’ each time. In a community where some 95 per cent of the housing is sub-standard and the water isn’t drinkable, graduating from high school can seem insurmountable.

First Nations children in Attawapiskat are still facing long odds and feel essentially trapped with no real bridges to a healthier, happier, more fulfilling life.  Looking at those all-too familiar C.D. Howe Institute bar graphs showing 2011 First Nations High School Certification Rates of 48.9 per cent for Ontario, compared to well over 80 per cent province-wide, cannot possibly convey all the “burdens” borne by those First Nations students who “fall out” of the system.

Somehow the “Action Steps” proposed in the C.D. Howe Institute report leave me cold.  A “seven step” strategy is presented with the declaratory certainty of the “policy-wonk” at a safe distance from the unfolding crisis among First Nations youth. The same recommendations reappear: close the funding gap; focus on improved student results; clarify who’s responsible for what, improve Region and ‘Band’ competencies; seek incremental improvements; target program funding; and improve second-level support services.

Such an approach may produce marginal improvement and help to ease the tortured conscience of federal and provincial policy-makers and Indigenous Affairs officials. It doesn’t really get at the root of the problem and does precious little to empower First Nations people themselves.

With a new Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, Dr. Carolyn Bennett, and more generosity of spirit, the time for social reconstruction may have arrived. Supporting traditional industries, creating sustainable employment, refurbishing housing, and embracing First Nations community-based schooling is a much better ‘whole of government’ approach. In that respect, my own Northern Policy Institute report, Picking Up the Pieces co-authored with Jonathan Anuik (September 2014), offers a sounder point of departure.

Social reconstruction and community-school development require a completely different more comprehensive, grassroots up strategy respecting First Nations ways of knowing and traditions. More funding would be a real help, but it’s going to take a generation to rebuild broken trust, foster cross-cultural reconciliation, and assist First Nations peoples themselves in this vitally important work.

What have we learned from Shannen’s Dream and the Attawapiskat School campaign? Why do First Nations ‘policy experts’ tend to fixate so much on the obvious “deficits” in student learning and graduation levels — and not really address the underlying causes? Where have top-down First Nations supervision and accountability schemes gotten us, so far? Is it easier to affix blame and point fingers than to listen, learn and act with more sensitivity?  Why not try harder to get more in sync with First Nations communities and their deepest aspirations to rebuild their own communities and institutions? 




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Public education trends in K-12 schools across Canada can be difficult to track. Without an eagle eye and a swivel-head, the next epic “education crisis” can come and go without much public notice. Nor do Canadians have any real federal presence in education to either establish national standards or provide independent assessments of provincial or territorial school programs.

Gauging the upticks and downticks is still possible, in between the beats and before the self-repairing school system quickly returns to its normal rhythms. What follows is a look back at 2015 in Canadian education with an eye to the coming year.

Notable Upticks

Educational Reconciliation

TRCReconcilePosterThe release of Justice Murray Sinclair’s massive December 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, together with the appointment of Dr. Carolyn Bennett as Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister, bode well for educational reconciliation and a satisfactory resumption of First Nations education reform. Establishing a stronger basis of trust, more stable federal funding, and more holistic, Indigenous-informed curricula, will go a long way to repairing the damage.

International Teaching Summit

The fifth annual International Summit on the Teaching Profession (ISTP 2015), at the Banff Springs Hotel, March 29-30, 2015, was sponsored by the OECD Education Office, but it shied away from discussing PISA testing and instead focused on supporting teachers and building their confidence to prepare students for a rather nebulous “rapidly changing world.” Chaired by short-lived Alberta Education Minister Gordon Dirks, ISTP 2015 was clearly the work of OECD education director Andreas Schleicher, OISE eminence gris Michael Fullan, and Stanford University education professor Linda Darling-Hammond. Out of the 400 delegates, most were actually Canadian officials or educators sponsored by provincial authorities and teaching unions.

Nova Scotia’s Three Rs Reform Plan

Public school students in Nova Scotia will focus more on mastering the fundamentals in mathematics and literacy, less on writing standardized tests under a N.S. January 2015 reform plan with the catchy title, The Three Rs: Renew, Refocus, Rebuild.  Delivered by Education Minister Karen Casey, the initiative responded to a blunt October 2014 provincial review that found half of Nova Scotians “not satisfied” with the quality of education.  It also called for a stronger teacher certification and evaluation system and a provincial audit of the efficiency of school boards.

Math Matters Protests

Hundreds of Alberta parents rallied in July 2015 to protest a new Math curriculum, dubbed “Discovery Math” by a growing number of parents, math professors, and local business advocates. Spearheaded by Dr. Nhung Tran-Davies and bearing a Math Petition with 18,074 signatures, the protestors continued to pressure a succession of Education ministers for changes to restore basics-first math instruction. The popular protests came on the heels of a May 2015 C.D. Howe Institute report claiming that Canada’s math teachers need to shift their focus away from discovery-based learning and move back towards traditional methods.

Indigenous Leadership Renewal

A new harvest of Indigenous leaders began to emerge in 2015 aroused by the Stephen Harper Conservative government’s intransigence and emboldened by the public support engendered by the nation-wide TRC hearings.  Two of the better known of the newly empowered generation were National Assembly of First Nations chief Perry Bellegarde, who succeeded the deposed Shawn Atleo, and the multi-talented Wab Kinew, author, host of CBC’s Canada Reads competition, and Associate Vice-President at the University of Winnipeg.

Memorable Downticks

TDSB Leadership Upheaval

Canada’s largest public school district, Toronto District School Board, endured one of its worst years on record.  When Board Director Donna Quan resigned in mid-November 2015, it brought a tumultuous end to her short tenure, 18 months before the expiration of her contract. Torn by a deep rift between Quan, her staff and the elected Board, the beleaguered Director stepped aside. In doing so, she also bowed to the findings of an earlier TDSB investigation, ordered by Education Minister Liz Sandals, that described in detail the board’s “culture of fear” and dysfunctional leadership.

School Closure Express Train

Armed with the dreaded New Brunswick Policy 409, and aided by that province’s District Education Councils (DECs), Education Minister Serge Rousselle  and his Department imposed a top-down, speeded-up “school sustainability process” upon supporters of a dozen threatened rural schools. Described by critics as a runaway “Express Train 409” bearing down on their communities, it sparked the formation in April 2015 of the first Rural Schools Coalition in the province.

Protracted Ontario Teachers’ Strikes

TeachersProtestON15A year of teacher strike disputes continued in Ontario, with a few interruptions, until November 2015.  Public elementary school teachers (EFTO) reached a tentative salary deal in early November, ending a lengthy period of work-to-rule. Support staff represented by a separate union (CUPE) also struck a deal then, ending negotiations that lasted over a year. One major difference between the November deals reached with ETFO and CUPE and the agreements with other unions is that these did not come with payments from the government to cover the unions’ negotiating expenses. A return to normalcy was promised with the issuing of full December 2015 student report cards.

Missing B.C. Student Records

British Columbia’s Minister of Technology Amrik Virk shocked British Columbians in late September 2015 when he publicly disclosed the loss of an unencrypted backup hard drive containing about 3.4 million student records.  The missing hard drive contained student data from 1986 to 2009, including information on children in care with serious health and behaviour issues. While the minister called the breach “low risk,” the B.C. information and privacy commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, claimed it raised “very serious privacy issues,” and launched an investigation.

Threat to Local Education Democracy

Elected school boards continued to flounder across Canada in 2015 because they are being eclipsed by expanding centralized administration far removed from students and parents. Since the stiff warning issued in a 2013 Canadian School Boards Association study, conducted by Gerald Galway and a Memorial University research team, elected trustees have been unable to recover their “voice of the people” role and face probable extinction.  In the fall of 2015, Quebec and P.E.I. joined New Brunswick in ending elected boards.  Disbanding school trustees without a viable replacement is not what’s best for students, parents, or local schools.

So much for the most visible trends and newsworthy events:  Where is Canadian K-12 education drifting? Will the next round of OECD Education international tests show any real change in student performance levels?   Is the era of centralized administration and standardization showing signs of fracturing in our provincial school systems? Has the education sector borne the full brunt of government austerity or is more to come? Will elected school boards survive as presently constituted across Canada? 

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Every September a fresh crop of hundreds of mostly novice teachers head North to teach in remote, mostly First Nations populated communities. Hired by northern public school districts or aboriginal education authorities, the recruits arrive flush with excitement and prepared to ‘sink or swim’ on a mostly unfamiliar educational terrain. This year is different for one reason: Teach for Canada (TFC) is a new ‘wild card’ on the educational scene and it’s an independent NGO committed to addressing the teacher shortage, filling vacant teaching posts, and ‘closing the education gap’ affecting Ontario’s northern First Nations communities.

RoxanneMartinTFC“By working with First Nations elders and educators and better preparing teachers, the program is filling a void,” says Cynthia Wesley-Esquimault, Lakehead University’s Director of Aboriginal Initiatives. “That’s why we hosted the four-week long Teach for Canada summer enrichment training session here at Lakehead.”

All eyes are on that one specially trained group of thirty-one teachers who have just taken up their posts in seven different communities in the Ontario North. They are, after all, the first cohort of emissaries recruited, selected and supported by Teach for Canada, co-founded by three energetic former Action Canada fellows, Kyle Hill, Mark Podlasly, and Adam Goldenberg

Although welcomed by most First Nations chiefs and lead educators, TFC has received an icy reception from the Canadian Teachers Federation (CTF) and vocal teacher union activists. When teacher unionists see the Teach for Canada logo with its quintessentially Canadian flying geese, they see its big bad American counterpart, Teach for America, and the thin edge of the wedge of creeping “privatization.” They are also leery of TFC recruits signing on with First Nations schools for salaries off the public school grid.

Since its inception, TFC has not only sparked a series of openly hostile teacher union blog posts, but prompted the CTF to issue a “Briefing Document” and greet the new TFC graduates in August 2015 with a condemnatory media release.

Close observers of First Nations communities are downright puzzled by the reaction of teacher unionists to the Teach for Canada pilot project in northern Ontario. “We currently do nothing to train and acclimatize new recruits entering First Nations communities,” notes Wesley-Esquimault, “and so it’s definitely an improvement.”

“Teach for Canada is filling a hole,” says Wawatay News reporter Rick Garrick, “so how can you complain?” In addition, he adds, “they are building a network of teaching colleagues to help with the feelings of isolation and provide ongoing support in the transition.” The highly acclaimed principal of Thunder Bay’s First Nations high school, Jonathan Kakegamic, winner of a 2013 Learning Partnership Outstanding Principal’s Award, is also supportive of the initiative. “I just found out about it this August,” he says, “but it looks like a step in the right direction. It’s hard to find qualified teachers, especially in high school, so it fills an immediate need.”

Northern Ontario public school boards have been slow to react to the TFC initiative. This is perhaps understandable because, right from the beginning, they too have been reluctant to embrace Teach for Canada. True to form, they have been disinclined to acknowledge, let alone respond to, this initiative from outside the system.

The initial Teach for Canada project only got off the ground in the Ontario North when the Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) based in Thunder Bay, Ontario, jumped at the opportunity to secure motivated, committed and eager new teachers for their remote, far-flung elementary schools.

One of TRC’s most impressive recruits, Roxanne Martin, an Anishinaabe raised in Toronto, is effusive in her praise for the project. Growing up in Ontario’s teeming metropolis, she longed to know more about her cultural identity and is delighted to be a pioneer for Teach for Canada teaching this fall at the Lac Seul First Nation school. “Knowing that we have a great support system and being able to incorporating First Nations culture into our teaching is great,” she told CBC News. “I don’t think you could find it anywhere else.”

Fresh from a four-week training session, including a five-day stay at Lac Seul First Nation, Martin and the first cohort of Teach for Canada recruits are better prepared than any previous group of teachers destined for teaching in First Nations communities.

Sweeping condemnations of educational innovations originating outside the system are all too common. From the ground level, it looks like a positive development, if only as a transitional program.  The ultimate goal is, of course, to provide First Nations education by fully qualified indigenous teachers. It will not happen if we keep shooting down promising teacher recruitment and training projects.

Why have First Nations communities in the Ontario North embraced Teach for Canada?  What’s really driving the resistance mounted by the Canadian Teachers Federation and outspoken teacher union activists? Who can complain when previous teacher preparation for teaching on First Nations reserves was so limited?  Is it possible that Teach for Canada is what is needed to spark the transition to First Nations education delivered by indigenous teachers?

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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.

PickUpPiecesCoverMore 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?

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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).

AtleoandHarperConformity 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?


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