THE BLOG

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Chelsea Vowel Headshot

Colonialism in the First Nations Education Act

Posted: Updated:
Print

Education is widely seen as a key component to future success not only for the individual children who receive that education, but also for the society to which they belong. We use graduation rates and post-secondary degree attainment numbers to help determine the efficacy and accessibility of a system of education. More than simply informing us of how many individuals are meeting educational standards, these numbers give us fundamental information about the overall health of a society.

There is no Aboriginal system of education in Canada. This fact is sometimes obscured by misunderstandings of reserve or band schools, or even charter schools that may provide 'indigenous content'. Nonetheless, the system of education that exists in Canada is wholly Canadian, both legislatively and in terms of provision.

Another important fact is that the Canadian system of education is failing indigenous peoples. This is not a matter of debate. Regardless of personal opinions, bigotry, and stereotypes, the grim statistics make this very clear.

When examining access, graduation rates and post-secondary degree attainment in other countries, we do not blame individuals for egregiously poor outcomes. We do not do this, because education is a social undertaking that transcends individuals and even minority groups. It requires mobilisation of all levels of government, and it impacts every single person living within the boundaries of that system of education. This systemic dysfunction within Canadian educational delivery to Aboriginal peoples is not the fault of those it has failed. It is the culmination of centuries-old attitudes which infantilise indigenous peoples and imagines they are incapable of educating themselves.

The stats: outcomes

  • A sizable gap in student performance between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students is already present by grade 4, with a widening of the gap by grade 7. (page 4)
  • 40 per cent of Aboriginal students aged 20-24 do not have a high school diploma compared to 13 per cent of non-Aboriginal people.
  • High school non-completion rates are even more pronounced on reserve (61 per cent) and among Inuit in remote communities (68 per cent). (page 3)
  • 9 per cent of the Aboriginal population have a university degree compared to 26 per cent among non-Aboriginal students. 63 per cent of Aboriginal university graduates are women.

The stats: funding

  • Non-Aboriginal funding is funded by the provinces. Aboriginal education is funded federally. Non-Status Indians and Métis students receive provincial funding only.
  • The federal funding formula for on-reserve schools has been capped at 2 per cent growth per year since 1996 despite the need having increased by 6.3 per cent per year, creating a $1.5-billion shortfall between 1996-2008 for instructional services alone.
  • Unlike their provincial counterparts, First Nations schools receive no funding for library books, librarian's salaries, construction or maintenance costs of school libraries, nor funding for vocational training, information and communication technologies, or sports and recreation. (page 20)
  • In 2007, there was a need for 69 new First Nation schools across Canada and an additional 27 needed major renovations. Funding was only provided for 21 new schools and 16 renovation projects. (page 24)
  • Despite claims by AANDC to the contrary, a recent federal report confirms that there are severe funding gaps in First Nations education that must be addressed immediately in the short-term, and that long-term improvements must be made with the active participation of First Nations stakeholders.
  • Post-secondary funding, available only to Status Indians and Inuit, has been historically inadequate to meet funding needs, and has created a backlog of 10,589 students between 2001-2006 who were denied funding. (page 34)

The First Nations Education Act: The top down approach again

Despite repeated reports and studies which recommend that the federal government cease acting unilaterally and without consultation with First Nations, that is precisely what has happened yet again with the First Nations Education Act.

Indigenous people have not seen this Act, which is supposed to be put into place in September of 2014. Instead, a draft plan has been created which will be 'shared with First Nations communities for their input'. The federal government claims it has been adequately consulting First Nations all along, but First Nations leaders have been vociferous in their dissatisfaction with this process. 'Consultation' leading up to the draft consisted of 8 consultation sessions, about 30 teleconferences, and some online activities.

The Canadian government has an absolutely dismal record with respect to indigenous education. Why anyone would believe that this time they can get it right, without even truly consulting or working with the people who will be most affected by any policy decision, is a complete mystery.

No thanks, we'll do it ourselves


In 1978 and 1979, the Mohawk communities of Kahnawake and Akwesasne opened their own schools, respectively named the Kahnawake Survival School (high school) and the Akwesasne Freedom School (elementary, junior high). Focusing on cultural and linguistic immersion and academic excellence, the schools are community funded, the infrastructure was built by the community, and each school has created its own curriculum. In essence, these are private schools which have had to form relationships with provincial authorities to ensure that their students graduate with recognized credentials that will be accepted in post-secondary institutions.

These two school embody the implementation of recommendations in numerous federal reports as well as the stated needs and aspirations of indigenous communities. They are not the only examples of solutions created and implemented by indigenous peoples, but the fact remains that the Canadian system of education does not provide adequate space for the widespread development of an indigenous system of education.

When public funding of Aboriginal education has been so woefully inadequate, and federal control has even been criminally incompetent, it is unacceptable for the Canadian government to yet again attempt to ram through a piece of legislation that cannot possibly solve the problem. You cannot fix the ills caused by a top-down approach by implementing more top-down policies.

Indigenous communities as a whole simply do not have the internal resources to create an entire system of private schooling in order to rectify the horrendous gap that has always existed between native and non-native student outcomes. If you can judge a society by its system of education, then Canada stands clearly guilty of discriminating against indigenous peoples by allowing this situation to continue; and worse, by perpetuating it through another unilateral attempt to 'do what's best for the Indians'.

If you were wondering why so few native people are in support of the proposed First Nations Education Act, I hope you have a better sense of the issue now; êkosi.

A longer version of this article was published on the author's blog, âpihtawikosisân.