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Wanted: Political Will for Reconciliation in Indigenous Education

Sound bites and political theatre: federal budgets and major policy announcements can often look like nothing more than political posturing. In response we might trot out the clichés: the devil is in the details…the proof is in the pudding…show me the money! But as our friends at Citizens for Public Justice often remind us, values are at the root of budgets and public policy. When government promises for First Nation Control of First Nation Education are made – as in the Feb. 10 Budget and the Prime Minister and AFN National Chief Atleo’s announcement on Feb. 7 – I hope the values of reconciliation and justice are present.  

We live in an era of promise and expectation for reconciliation, and we as citizens can demonstrate reconciliation as a key value by supporting real reform in Indigenous Education.

The Centre for Public Dialogue has been following Indigenous education reform since 2010. In November of that year Canada affirmed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP), and National Chief Atleo said that education reform was a good first step to implementation of the Declaration. Given the central role that education plays in the oppression and assimilation of Indigenous people in Canada (think residential schools) we thought that substantial work supporting reconciliation in education was important.

Since then we’ve followed the ebb and flow of policy dialogue, promises, and controversies; and have had the privilege of working with Indigenous educators and policy experts. We’ve learned that we share some basic perspectives on education with Indigenous people: that cultural and spiritual values are important for learning and identity; and that parents and communities are important participants in educational success. We also learned that Indigenous schools struggle with chronic underfunding and a dizzying range of administrative and facilities challenges.

Our friend and colleague Cindy Blackstock of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society has said repeatedly that “reconciliation means not saying sorry twice.” So if the Prime Minister’s Apology, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and Canada’s commitments to the UNDRIP are to have lasting meaning, surely justice, equity and reconciliation in Indigenous education should be an urgent priority.

The Government of Canada acknowledged the importance of reform in Indigenous Education and began a process of consultation toward it in 2011. In Budget 2012 they promised a First Nations’ Education Act for implementation in September 2014. After a controversial consultation process, a couple of early drafts of legislation were floated in the summer and fall of 2013. With the passions and celebrations of #IdleNoMore ringing in the land, Indigenous people and organizations expressed concerns about the process and content of the proposed legislation: the lack of clarity on stable and sufficient funding, the lack of specific protection for language and culture, the ill-defined role of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, and the limited scope of consultation with Indigenous communities. All this controversy led the Assembly of First Nations to issue an open letter in late November 2013 that outlined five conditions for a new direction for education legislation.

So after all this tension and controversy, it is good news that the Government of Canada has listened to the concerns expressed by AFN. The policy and budget announcements strike positive tones on First Nations Leadership of Education; provision for the all-important work of language and culture education; and a commitment to adequate and stable funding. Accountability to these promises will mean great strides on the journey of reconciliation in education.

Indigenous people have been advocating for justice and equity in education, to protect culture and combat assimilation, since 1972. Our Indigenous friends and partners tell us that the ongoing problems with education in these 40-some years are not due to a lack of workable solutions—it’s a lack of political will that is rooted in the indifference of the Canadian public. So, with a new start towards solutions possible in the promised First Nations Control of First Nation’s Education Act, it’s important that people with a commitment to reconciliation build the political will for accountability to these “good start” promises, and encourage a deepening commitment to justice, equity, and reconciliation in education. The promises of a new act and real new money have already been the subject of criticism and controversy: for example, there will be a two year delay for the promised funding and there are no efforts to address the unique and significant needs of Inuit and Métis learners.

We’ll be learning more about these gaps in the promises along with Indigenous partners and we’ll be tracking the progress of accountability to the promises made. And in an effort to build political will for reconciliation in education we’ll be working with Indigenous organizations, churches and ecumenical groups to bring the message to thousands of Canadians. Stay tuned!  

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