Education a Hot Topic

Children & Youth | Indigenous Advocacy

A number of developments are underfoot in the field of First Nations education this year. As spring turns into summer, the important topic of education is heating up too. Here’s an overview of some recent activity:

  • A recent performance evaluation, contracted by the federal department of Aboriginal Affairs, found the federal government needs to seriously increase its investment in First Nations’ elementary and secondary education.

The report found First Nations children who live on reserve are not receiving comparable educational opportunities to other Canadian children. Federally-funded First Nations students have to cope with lower quality teaching, an inferior curriculum, and inadequate services for children with special needs. Given these unequal opportunities, it is perhaps unsurprising that the report found a “significant gap” in educational outcomes too.

The report was completed in June 2012, but not posted publically by Aboriginal Affairs until May 2013. We note that the report corroborates what many First Nations advocates have said for years, not to mention several previous third party reports including from the National Panel (convened by the federal government and the AFN) and the Auditor General.

Most First Nations oppose the initiative, first of all because it is not being developed in partnership with First Nations themselves. The weak “consultation” plans released in December were a major disappointment, especially since even the National Panel – a controversial process itself – called for legislation to be co-created.

First Nations also object to the proposed substance of the legislation, as circulated in a government Discussion Paper, which they say fails to address the real problems. The federal proposal focuses on imposing mandatory standards for First Nations schools (how can they be met?), accountability (by First Nations to the federal government, but what about vice versa?) and mechanisms for “stable, predictable” funding (funding has long been stable and predictable, one might say stagnant; where are the much needed investments?).

protest in Thunder Bay this April brought attention to the issue. However the Harper government maintains that it will pass the new legislation by September 2014.

  • Meanwhile, some First Nations have begun turning to litigation in an effort to resolve disputes about education for their children.

The Mississaugas of the New Credit are pursuing a human rights complaint about their access to special needs education, in particular services for two children with Down syndrome. And beneficiaries of Treaty 3 are in the midst of a lawsuit about the right to education captured in Treaty 3. Although that case hit a procedural snag this February, those preliminary issues look likely to be resolved either on appeal or by re-working the case.

Both of these claims speak to the problem of First Nations being treated unequally and unfairly in education.

  • A national conference on Aboriginal post-secondary education wrapped up last week in Regina.

National Chief Shawn Atleo spoke on the immense importance of education, at both the post-secondary and K-12 levels: “It’s about parity, it’s about equity and fairness. It’s also about undoing the last several generations of the impacts of residential schools. Having aboriginal people succeed in the next 20 years will result in a $400 billion contribution to the Canadian economy.” Looking back at our collective past, and looking forward at our collective future, there’s no question that this is a central issue.

Clearly the legal and policy framework on First Nations education is in a state of change. But are the changes taking us in the right direction? Sometimes it feels like we take one step forward but another step back. My hope is that we will fulfill the dream of Shannen Koostachin, a youth education advocate from Attawapiskat First Nation: safe, comfy schools providing excellent, culturally-based education for all First Nations children and youth.

Please contact Judith Rae with any questions.

By Judith Rae

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