Back to Top

An Aboriginal Education Success Story

Although it is sad to say, the truth is that Aboriginal education in Canada is stuck. It cannot move forward with much-needed reform. The issues needing reform are many--there are significant inequities between funding given to on-reserve Aboriginal schools and off-reserve schools. Less than half of First Nations people graduate high school, compared to almost 90% of non-Aboriginal people in Canada. Aboriginal cultures and languages are currently “extras” added to the education system of the dominant culture; the freedom and support to integrate Aboriginal worldviews into the curriculum is sorely lacking. (You can find more background information and sources on the Centre for Public Dialogue's website.)

There have been attempts at reform in the past year--the federal government tried to pass a bill to reform the system (the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act, Bill C-33), but it was so strongly opposed by First Nations that the head of the Assembly of First Nations quit over the controversy. A lack of consultation, of real and fruitful dialogue with First Nations communities, has been a central reason for the breakdown of the bill, begging the question: what is true and proper consultation? 

As an intern for the Christian Reformed Centre for Public Dialogue, I have been investigating the question of true and proper consultation for the past month and a half. I have dived into multiple documents, websites, articles, political debate, and interviews, all seemingly claiming to know something about what consultation truly is. My research has taken me beyond Bill C-33 to other fairly recent issues and models that link back to consultation in some way. I do not pretend to be an expert, or admit to holding the answer to this question, but I have found a light amidst the darkness in education reform, a model that is both successful in its consultation and its implementation; and that model is the Mi’kmaq Education Act.

The Mi’kmaq Education Act has given the Mi’kmaq people control over their own education since 1998. Now that 17 years have gone by since this agreement, its success is evident. While high school graduation rates for First Nation people across the country are approximately 48.5%, well below the 85% provincial average, the Mi’kmaq have surpassed this provincial average by 3.5% as of four years ago.

To understand the reason for the act’s success, we have to look at how the act came about and functions. The consultation process for this act was very important in its shaping, and still remains as an important foundation to the implementation of the act. Consultations were done internally and involved each community. Every community held a meeting to determine what they were looking for in an education act. The consultation process also allowed communities to opt out if they did not wish to participate in the act. In fact, only 9 of the 13 Mi’kmaq communities partook in the 1998 education act, and one community is still not under the act today. Once the act was passed, consultation continued, and still continues today through consultative meetings in each community at least twice a year by the band to allow concerns to be voiced.

The act has given the Mi’kmaq jurisdiction over the education of their own people. This allows them to create programs and structure education in ways that benefit them the most. Eleanor Bernard, Executive Director of the Mi’kmaq education organization Mi’kmaw Kina’matnewey, cited this jurisdiction as the highlight of the entire act: “communities decide what is best for the needs of their students. That’s what makes success”. Some structural changes include delivering university courses to the community in the community and holding some classes during nontraditional hours of the day. The Mi’kmaq have also gained the power to address subjects that students are struggling with, and have the power to preserve their language. Currently there is an initiative beginning that will provide the schools under this act a total of 500 books written in the Mi’kmaq language. Since the application of this act, students have gained a sense of pride of their own culture and self-esteem; it is no wonder that graduation rates have climbed to match and even surpass the provincial average.

It is also important to recognize that the Mi’kmaq did not make any compromises or give up anything in this agreement with the government. Although the act does not recognize Aboriginal treaty rights, it does not ignore them either.

The existence of this agreement between the government and the Mi’kmaq people shows that the government can and has recognized a level of First Nations authority over education. It also shows that real consultation over First Nations jurisdiction of education is indeed possible. Positive things continue to happen under the Mi’kmaq Education Act. Although an act like this might not work for every First Nations band across the country, it does stand as a model of success, and reminds us that despite the frustrated attempts at aboriginal education reform in Bill C-33 and the present lack of consultation, the road to successful educational reform is not as hopeless as the present reality may suggest.

The Reformed family is a diverse family with a diverse range of opinions. Not all perspectives expressed on the blog represent the official positions of the Christian Reformed Church. Learn more about this blog, Reformed doctrines, and our diversity policy on our About page.

In order to steward ministry shares well, commenting isn’t available on Do Justice itself because we engage with comments and dialogue in other spaces. To comment on this post, please visit the Christian Reformed Centre for Public Dialogue’s Facebook page (for Canada-specific articles) or the Office of Social Justice’s Facebook page. Alternatively, please email us. We want to hear from you!

Read more about our comment policy.