The federal government is in the process of creating a new First Nations Education Act which is due to enter the House of Commons in November, 2013 and to come into effect in September of 2014. The document is meant to address and reconcile some major issues facing First Nations students: lack of funding, lack of jurisdiction, lack of relevant curriculum, and ultimately a complete lack of “system” that is available to non-First Nations students across Canada.

First Nations Education in Canada: A Summary

To better understand the obstacles faced by First Nations learners nation-wide, a brief overview of the historical and political context is essential. For most readers here, the history of European contact and the continued degradation of First Nations people is not new. After the creation of the reserve system, most young people were only offered education through the church. This system, after the creation of the Indian Act, morphed into what we know today as the residential school system. Attendance in these schools in the 1900s was mandatory for every First Nation student. The schools, the last of which closed in 1996, were underfunded and students were removed from their homes, forbidden to speak their ancestral language, and routinely subjected to unspeakable abuses. Over 150,000 students went through this system, and its legacy is still felt to this day.

In Canada today, the education of children is the responsibility of the individual provinces. Each province is, and has, created their own education legislation that details professional standards of teachers, curriculum, standards for students, and the hierarchy of schools, districts, and the provincial government. This legislation gives legal rights to students, parents, and teachers; it serves as a guiding principal where all people involved in the education of a child are aware of their responsibilities.

In contrast, First Nations communities across Canada deal with the department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development to exercise their treaty rights and receive funding for a variety of community services: roads, social services, health, education, and many others. When a First Nations community has a school in their community, it is generally funded completely by the Band and Council of that community. While this can give a great opportunity for communities to be heavily involved with the education of their children, they operate in isolation as they do not fall under the jurisdiction of the province. As a result, a good number of First Nations schools in New Brunswick are underfunded and under supported. Children often lack access to the educational supports provided to their non-First Nations peers. Teachers often lack access to critical professional supports. For example, the province of New Brunswick employs over 200 staff that work on behalf of teachers and students outside of the classroom. For the First Nations communities in New Brunswick, most communities just have 1 or 2 people employed outside of the classroom to assist students and teachers.

As self-governing communities, First Nations in New Brunswick have the right to administer the education of their children as they deem appropriate. In New Brunswick, all First Nations schools adopt the standards of the New Brunswick curriculum and run their schools much like any other in New Brunswick. However, our communities often lack the critical “system”, with administrative, educational, and professional supports at the higher level.

What we want:

Three Nations has concerns similar to communities across Canada;
however, any legislation must address two of the most critical issues: funding and jurisdiction.

Jurisdiction means that each First Nation community should have control over the education of their child. The curriculum, the teacher’s qualifications, the quality of the facilities, and how money is spent needs to be controlled by each individual community. Currently in New Brunswick, all communities do have complete control over their on-reserve schools; it is our wish that control over the education of our children is not compromised by future legislation. The proposed First Nations Education Act details that communities will have three options for control of their schools: a community run model, delegation to the province, or control by a First Nations Education group. Three Nations would recommend a fourth-option, whereby schools remain controlled by their communities, but First Nation Education groups can receive funding for the collective purpose of providing critical additional resources to First Nation schools that are currently lacking.

Funding for education is a major concern for First Nations communities across Canada. In simple terms, First Nations students receive less money that non-First Nations learners. Disparities in funding are made more difficult by the fact that many First Nations communities are small and isolated, making a greater economy of scale very difficult. The funding received by First Nations communities is also often proposal based. This means that communities must make proposals to receive funding to facilitate the education of their children. Proposal-based funding comes with a high degree of uncertainty as to the amount of funding and whether it is received at all. The funding formula that works in schools with 1500 students does not necessarily work in schools that have 100. Three Nations hopes that any new legislation will be legislate guaranteed funding that reflects the actual needs of First Nations communities in New Brunswick and across Canada.