First Nations vow to oppose imposed education act

MANITOULIN—The decision of the Harper government to forge ahead with a First Nations Education Act in the face of strong opposition from the political leadership of those communities, despite assurances from the federal government that the legislation would be crafted in concert with First Nations, threatens to ignite another season of escalating anger and Idle No More protests.

Anishinabek Nation Grand Council Chief Patrick Madahbee said his nation has already rejected the First Nations Education Act. “We have also taken a process that we have been working on for the past 18-19 years on developing an Anishinabek education system to the final stage of going to our communities for ratification,” said Chief Madahbee. “We have developed an education authority, we have developed our local representation on how that will work in terms of regional councils and we have had our educated front-line people, the experts in education, develop this system. We don’t need some bureaucrat in Ottawa who has never been to our communities to come and try to tell us how to operate education services for our community.”

Chief Madahbee said the biggest challenges facing Anishnaabek Nation communities stem from the lack of adequate education resources—and that shortfall stems from the failure of the federal government in its treaty obligations. “There is a disparity in the per capita rate between on-reserve and off-reserve schools,” said Chief Madahbee. “There is a cap on postsecondary funding and we’re saying we need ample resources to operate our own systems.”

The need for greater funding for remote and isolated First Nation communities has been highlighted in recent reports, where costs associated with construction and service delivery are typically much higher than that of urban and southern communities.

The Assembly of First Nations recently completed a meeting in which the act was a central point of discussion.

“We discussed education at length over the last two days and along with maintaining our rejection of the federal legislation on education we also collectively affirm our inherent right to establish and control our own educational systems and institutions,” said Assembly of First Nations Ontario Regional Chief Stan Beardy. “Additionally, we are developing a plan of action to assert our jurisdiction over education.”

For its part the federal government’s Economic Action Plan 2013 website asserts that the act “confirms the government’s commitment to consult with First Nations across Canada on the development of a First Nation Education Act and is committing to sharing this draft legislation with First Nations communities for their input.”

The government website sets out the government’s intention to “have in place by September 2014 a First Nation Education Act. This legislation would establish the structures and standards necessary to ensure stronger, more accountable education systems on reserve. The government also committed to exploring mechanisms to ensure stable, predictable and sustainable funding for First Nations elementary and secondary education. The government will continue to consult with First Nations across Canada on the development of legislation and is committing to sharing draft legislation with First Nations communities for their input.”

The Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development asserted on its website that there have been concerted consultation efforts stating that “over the last months, the government consulted with First Nations, provinces and others on a proposed framework for legislation on First Nations elementary and secondary education, outlined in the December 2012 Discussion Guide. Between December 2012 and May 2013, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada held eight face-to-face regional consultation sessions across the country, more than 30 video and teleconference sessions, as well as online consultation activities, including an online survey.

In addition, Aboriginal Affairs noted that on June 12, 2013, the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development sent a letter to all First Nation Chiefs and Councils, including grand chiefs, to provide an update on the consultation process and to outline the next steps in the development of the proposed First Nation Education Act.

First Nations leaders assert that simply delivering the content of the legislation and accepting comment from First Nations without substantive accommodation of their concerns falls far short of working together to craft a strategy that addresses educational needs.

Chief Madahbee outlined the issues. “Firstly, it gives our citizens, parents and students no say in their own education,” he said. “This government just cannot bring itself to consult with our citizens in a meaningful way because they believe they know what’s best for our children. This is the same mentality as the government-run residential school disaster that had a history littered with genocide and acts of inhumanity.”

“Secondly, it ignores curriculum needs that experts agree are essential to the academic success of First Nations learners—curriculum that talks about our culture and beliefs, and an accurate account of our historical contributions. Provincial public schools are at least attempting to do that, but federal bureaucrats think they know better than educators.”

“Thirdly, this government starts their so-called educational reform with a threat to First Nations that if they don’t meet Canadian standards they will be put under third-party management, despite the fact that First Nation schools are largely underfunded and are unlikely to meet standards set by other, better-funded schools, for example, the school in Biinjitiwaabik Zaaging Anishinaabek (Rocky Bay First Nation) receives $4,781 less per student than nearby provincially-funded Upsala School in the Keewatin Patricia District School Board.”

“The Anishinabek Education System is holistically-rooted in community involvement, Anishinaabe identity, and meaningful First Nations curriculum that puts language and children at the focal point of education,” said Chief Madahbee. “This is the type of system that will provide educational success for Anishinabek Nation students, not another government-run system where there’s decades of proof that they cannot do the job.”

As proof of the shortcomings of a strategy wherein the federal government oversees and dictates First Nations education, the grand chief could simply point to the tragedy of historical abuses stemming from the residential school system and the current disparity in high school completion rates that see only 36 percent of First Nations students completing high school. Successes in the other approach are not hard to find and better models do exist, he suggests. Chief Madahbee pointed to the success of an education agreement between 11 Mi’Kmaq communities and Canada that dates back to 1997.

“Their graduation rate this year was almost 90 percent,” said Chief Madahbee. “That’s because First Nations communities came together and decided what was best for their students—they have First Nation control of First Nation education.”

Opposition members have joined with the AFN and Anishinaabek Nation (UOI) in voicing opposition to the government’s approach.

Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing MP Carol Hughes also cited the Mi’Kmaq agreements as a model and invoked the need for adequate and meaningful consultation with First Nations. “We don’t want to set them up for failure,” she said. Ms. Hughes noted that the previous auditor general had indicated that it would take 20 years to close the education gap if action was taken immediately. “Under the Conservative government the gap has only widened.”

Ms. Hughes explained that the auditor general had indicated that there needed to be legislation to govern the federal government in meeting its obligations to First Nations. “That is the federal government, not the First Nations,” she said. “Unfortunately, this Conservative government insists on continuing with a top-down approach that has not worked in the past.”

Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett, critic for Aboriginal Affairs, said “the Proposal for a Bill on First Nations Education has received a failing grade from coast-to-coast-to-coast” during an October 24 House of Commons session. “The Conservatives should push pause on this flawed, top-down strategy, sit down with First Nations communities and build a workable, fully funded plan that respects, supports and empowers First Nations to control their own education systems.”

The United Church of Canada recently sent an open letter to Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada Minister Bernard Valcourt requesting the government reconsider their approach.

The Canadian Chamber of Commerce has weighed in on the issue, issuing a report that calls upon the government to deal with the disparity of education in First Nations as an economic priority and to ensure that meaningful consultation takes place.

The chamber report, entitled ‘Opportunity Found: Improving the participation of Aboriginal Peoples in Canada’s Workforce,’ outlines the alarming statistics of low First Nations graduation rates and the factors impinging on that low rate and recommends the federal government: work with businesses to identify more opportunities to match private sector financial support for aboriginal skills and training among a host of other recommendations.

Michael Erskine