Why is Ottawa consigning First Nations to inferior education?

It has been one year since the emergence of Idle No More, the most recent articulation of the oldest activism in North America, and very little has changed. The relationship between indigenous peoples and the federal government is worse today than it was in December, 2012, a time when leaders starved themselves for some of the things Canadians take for granted. And the apathy of those Canadians is still profound, unmoved by tens of thousands of protesters in streets and malls. An example of this dysfunctional relationship is manifest in First Nations education policy.

On the first anniversary of the so-called “Round Dance Revolution,” Anishinaabe and Cayuga peoples, among others, were once again on the steps of Parliament. This time frustrated and angry with the federal government’s proposed First Nations Education Act (FNEA), legislation that would amend the Indian Act’s sections on community education, encouraging the creation of regional First Nations school boards and potentially transferring control of education to provincial jurisdictions. The crux of the debate is about power.

According to government literature, the proposed act allows “First Nation control over First Nation education” and “respects treaty rights” and “provides the opportunity to structure the schools in a way that respects community and cultural concerns” – all wonderful prescriptions … if they were actually in the proposed act. Instead, the legislation liquidates the limited control over primary education communities do have and re-installs the minister of Aboriginal Affairs as school superintendent.

With the proposed act, the minister: decides if schools are meeting imposed standards; can take over administration of schools that aren’t (leading to the inevitable rise of the third-party education manager); determines qualifications for school staff and administrators; approves budgets; and, finally, transports us back to 1846 by setting student disciplinary policy. A man oblivious to irony, the Minster of Aboriginal Affairs, Bernard Valcourt, has called this proposal both “transformational” and “revolutionary.”

But Mr. Valcourt’s most oft-quoted talking point during the rollout of the proposed act has been: “I don’t believe in throwing federal funds at the problem.” This is a virtual guarantee that the chronic underfunding of community education will persist, ensuring the proposed act’s attainment standards won’t be met. First Nations teachers and “problem”-students will be set up for failure.

The philosophy and content of the proposed act is the first issue. The other is the aforementioned persistent apathy of Canadians. With a few exceptions, the public response to FNEA has been positive and the minister’s talking points about resources repeated. The Globe and Mail’s editorial boardendorsed the FNEA repeating, “the solution is not to just throw more money at the problem” and earlier this week another Globe article said National Chief Shawn Atleo faced the choice of supporting the act or risking “consigning another generation of First Nations children to an inadequate education.”

The implications of these sentiments are twofold. First, Dakota and Innu peoples are not worth it. If Canadian schoolchildren in any region of the country didn’t have clean water to drink at school the unequivocal solution would be to fix the problem – with money. Not so for native kids. Second, First Nations’ opinions on the act don’t really matter. In other words, even unanimous opposition to the proposed act from actual indigenous people cannot compel reconsidering.

Where does that leave us? I recently heard Jessica Danforth, executive director of the Native Youth Sexual Health Network, talk about the responsibilities that we as indigenous peoples have for ensuring that the rights of children are maintained. She made it clear that there isn’t a program or service offered by the federal government that can restore that responsibility. We are the program, she said. It reminded me of the National Indian Brotherhood’s 1972 “Indian Control of Indian Education,” a policy that placed obligations on children and parents for their own education.

All of this is obvious. But it is an important reminder for indigenous peoples in a Canada that is flooded with forms of racism and paternalism that quality education won’t be achieved through appeals to Canadian governments (whatever the treaty right). Merely cost-effective, “reform” further distances First Nations’ control of education from First Nations peoples. Consider that in opposition to FNEA, leaders are forced to defend the current system, which we know isn’t effective either. Are the only options bad or worse?

Instead, the escape from this inertia might require communities to disengage with the system altogether. This would require more will than currently exists from community leadership, a steep commitment from educators and administrators, and even more sacrifice from students. But it might allow communities to be pro-active, to teach and learn in Anishinaabemowin or Kanien’kéha, to cultivate land-based education, and to actually live autonomously. Perhaps this is the type of activism we should be considering.



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