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First Nations Education: Beyond Pithy Headlines

The First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act or Bill C-33 has, it seems, been put on the shelf permanently. This morning a radio announcer went with a pithy headline: "Yesterday First Nations Chiefs Left $1.9 Billion on the Table." This headline hides a bigger story of struggle, hope, and movement on the journey for reconciliation in Indigenous Education. With citizens bearing witness to the need for justice and equity, the shelving of Bill C-33 will be a part of meaningful change.

Why is education reform so necessary? A couple highlights…

  • Funding disparity: On-reserve schools receive $4771 per student from the government, while off-reserve schools get $7694.
  • Graduation rates: 40% of First Nations students complete highschool (vs. 87% of non-Indigenous Canadians).
  • Residential schools: Education was used as a tool of assimilation for more than a hundred years. Residential schools were chronically under-funded and determined by the government, completely outside of community values and priorities. It’s time to do better.

So here’s what’s been happening this week:

First Nation Chiefs from around the northern part of Turtle Island (aka Canada) met in a special assembly organized by AFN (Assembly of First Nations) on May 27. They adopted the following resolution unanimously:

"Canada must withdraw Bill C-33 and engage in an honourable process with First Nations that recognizes and supports regional and local diversity leading to true First Nations control of education based on our responsibilities and inherent aboriginal and treaty rights.” 

The chiefs also made it clear that the funding promises related to Bill C-33, totalling $1.9 billion, need to be released to First Nations schools and learners.

This drama of the last few days is the latest in a line of struggle and debate that has included a controversial consultation process intended to shape legislation, and the resignation of National Chief Atleo. This version of the education debate is 4 years old but it runs deep: as far back as 1972 Indigenous people were insisting on the right to direct the education of their children. Indigenous people have remained passionately committed to education that promotes cultural values, indigenous languages, and the full participation of communities (parents and elders). In long-running discussions with Indigenous partners, I’ve learned that this holistic perspective on education is a big part of what is meant by Indigenous Control of Indigenous Education. (Remind you of another community’s commitment to education that promotes values and the full participation of communities?)

Bill C-33 isn’t all bad:

  • The preamble of the Bill offered a symbolic affirmation of the principles of First Nation control of First Nation Education;
  • The significant funding promises ($1.9 Billion and 4.5% annual funding increases) are the first clear policy steps from Canada to address the underfunding of Indigenous education. The new money was an excellent start towards justice and equity in systems damaged by chronic underfunding and the heritage of colonialism and assimilation.

So why then was the $1.9 billion left on the table? 

I can’t begin to analyze the complex dynamics of the struggles within the AFN leadership on this. Suffice it to say there are differences of opinion on how to work with the Government of Canada. The fact is that Indigenous communities have a range of experiences that inform the degree of trust and openness to working with the government. In this diversity, the journey of reconciliation is complex, and must be responsive to a full range of cultures and experiences. The government’s timeline (legislation in place for Sept. 2014, announced in March 2012) was hasty for the consultation, responsiveness, and flexibility that is necessary.

Earlier I said that the preamble of C-33 has some symbolic affirmation of the need for First Nation control of First Nation education. A close analysis shows that the spirit of the preamble isn't consistently reflected in the details of the legislation. Just one example of many: The bill was going to set up a Joint Council on First Nation Education. That council was to be a maximum of 8 members with 4 appointments made by the Minister, and then 4 more made by the Minister in consultation with a First Nations entity. This essentially meant that the Minister retains full control of appointments of a key body that would shape the implementation of the legislation. There was not even a written guarantee that joint council members would be Indigenous educators. The joint council in C-33 was not, in my mind, in line with the principles of Indigenous control of Indigenous education. 

The Centre for Public Dialogue has followed this debate closely for the last 4 years and we were optimistic about the prospect of a First Nation education act. C-33, and the process leading up to it, was flawed and messy but the pragmatic side of me thought – well here’s a start. At the same time I resonated with the profound concerns about the flawed process among Indigenous people. 

For perspective, consider the words of Justice Murray Sinclair, the Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission: “Education got us into this mess and education will get us out.” On the surface, the end of C-33 and the suspension or loss of the major funding promises looks like a major set-back. But generations of assimilative policy cannot be overcome by one piece of legislation. The path of reconciliation in education (and reconciliation in general for that matter) is a long one that requires persistence and commitment. Holding to core values of holistic education directed by and for Indigenous people, and the well-being of Indigenous children are a central part of this journey.

So the C-33 part of this journey is over but the call to reconciliation in education should continue. As Shawn Atleo once said, we can’t lose another generation. So now is the time for non-Indigenous people, and particularly those of us in the churches, to pursue reconciliation by bearing witness to the need for justice and equity for Indigenous children. You’ll be hearing more for us on this in the coming months, I promise. But for now, please make a visit or call/e-mail your local MP and ask: with the end of Bill C-33, what will the government do to build trust with Indigenous people towards a new process for justice and equity in Indigenous education?

[Image: Flickr user Karen Roe]

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