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Truth: Our Inherent Right to Education


Truth: Our Inherent Right to Education

Sara General


Tonight I helped to volunteer at the Six Nations Forest Theatre in my community.  It was my first time volunteering there and I can honestly say it was one the most exciting things I've ever taken part in - I enjoyed it immensely and am really grateful for the opportunity to be involved.  I will be posting about that experience in the next few days.  In the mean time, I wanted to share my thoughts on an education related matter.  I recently had to write a paper about the merits, challenges and concerns associated with the proposed First Nations education legislation.   I wrote way over the suggested 2000 word limit and had to cut it back a bit, but I wanted to record the entirety of the writing somewhere, as a way of starting to share my thoughts about an issue that I have a lot of hope and warmth for - education.  I decided to do so here on the blog :). The title of my paper was: "Don't believe the hype: Why the proposed First Nations Education Act is a sham".  It's a little harsh to be sure and clearly there's a bit of a shout out to the title of a song by the group Public Enemy.  I also made a board game out of this subject - stay tuned for that.  This post is a long one and believe me, I left so many things out.  But I want to start somewhere.  A lot of people think First Nation communities are always causing a ruckus, raising a fuss for no reason, unwilling to let go of the past.  Don't we want education outcomes to improve?  Of course we do.  But we might have a different measurement we need to meet first (i.e. - making sure our learners know who they are and how cool our history and origin stories really are).  And guess what? There is nothing wrong with that.   We can still have amazing math, physics, computer and environmental sciences programs and know our own stories, speak our own languages and make sure we share the knowledge of how to honour the responsibilities we have that will ensure there is clean water and a sustainable future for all.  So please forgive me the length of this post.  Pause for breaks.   Enjoy the pictures.  Here goes.

Don't believe the hype...

I am passionate about storytelling; it is how I learn, imagine, and engage.  It is how I connect to the Creation and has been since I was a little girl. I am grateful for every capacity that I have been allowed to utilize in my time here but the ability to tell stories is undoubtedly my favourite.  The story I am about to tell is all truth.  It is a story about my people and our inherent right to education.

Indigenous Peoples of Great Turtle Island have been under constant attack, particularly since an act of British parliament in 1876 created the successor state of Canada (Venne, 2007).  This history of this attack, as well as our origin stories, have been preserved by my people so that present and future generations will understand what took place and be able to reverse this attack by upholding our responsibilities to Creation and reminding others of the treaty relationship.  It has not been an easy knowledge to preserve - the state of Canada does not want to honour the Treaties and continues its attempts to assimilate the Original Peoples of Turtle Island into Canada. For many decades, one of Canada’s primary assimilation objectives has been to gain control of the education of Indigenous Peoples.   This is to help achieve their principal objective – to gain control over our lands.

A few months ago, I had a terrible dream.  In the dream, there was a man who was very charismatic but emotionally wounded and somewhat loath to admit it.   He had come to the city that I was living in and he was looking for something.  In the dream I was travelling through the city and looking for him.  I came to a place that bore similarities to the Indigenous Knowledge Centre in my community.  In waking life, the Indigenous Knowledge Centre is a place where histories and stories told through documents, pictures, videos, and books have gathered so that community members may have access to and enjoy them.   It served a similar purpose in my dream. In the dream, there were also elders of my community in the Centre and the people who worked in the Centre were hiding the elders because this man was trying to find them and hurt them.  His desire was to eradicate all of the stories so that there would only be one.  I realized that his goal was unhealthy and wrong and that I wanted to do my part to stop this terrible thing from occurring.   My spirit decided to come back at this time and stop this man from erasing our knowledges from this this place that we were sent.  I am happy to continue this work. I am grateful to uphold the Treaty.  I will do everything that I can to ensure our story is told.  Starting now.

The proposed First Nations Education Act hardly merits discussion in this paper – although it is intended to be the paper’s focus.  It has been emphatically denounced and rejected by the majority of provincial and national First Nations organizations across Turtle Island (Chiefs of Ontario 2013, Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations 2013, Assembly of First Nations in Quebec and Labrador 2013).  There are major concerns about the intention of the legislation, but they are well documented in many other places.  My personal efforts will be to focus on remembering that as Indigenous Peoples, we have inherent and treaty rights to education and we can determine ways to share our stories with our children.  My mother is always telling me to pay attention, which is a difficult thing to do, but she’s right that this what is needed.  We must pay attention to what children have to say about education.  We must also remember.

As I am writing this paper, I am also making a board game to encode what I understand about First Nations education and the various hurdles that it faces.  This is because the other evening, with all of these heavy thoughts about treaty rights, education legislation and Canada’s poor conduct, I went to visit my niece and she showed me a game that she had made up earlier in the day called ‘La Road Bleu’.  As we played, I realized the extent to which we can allow the rules of the Canadian government to dictate our thinking and affairs.  I realized how easy it would be to tell the story of my own experience and the learning that I’d accrued about education in a game-like format.

You see, a number of years ago I was working as the Education Coordinator for the Chiefs of Ontario (COO).  At the time that I assumed this position, the department of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) was launching new streams of programs intended as phase one of their ‘education reform’.  The criticisms of the federal government’s handling of First Nations education at the time were primarily the same as we hear now: it is underfunded, it lacks infrastructure, there is limited expertise at the federal level to deal with education, the provinces hold jurisdiction for education and have cultivated much more expertise in the area as a result, and First Nations students are not graduating at equivalent rates to non-native children.  These findings were supported by a number of government, non-governmental and privately commissioned reports.  By this time, numerous calls for action to address this situation had been made.  The education reform agenda was ostensibly one of the government’s responses to what many were calling a crisis situation.  ‘Phase one’ of the reform agenda included the introduction of three programs: the First Nations Education Partnership Program, the First Nations Student Success Program, and the Education Information System. In spite of being asked directly, the government would not clarify what phase two of the reform was although it was suspected by many First Nations education policy analysts that it was legislation and at the time a policy report by the Caledon Institute calling for a First Nations Education Act had been posted to the INAC website.  Legislation is an unacceptable path for reasons that I will get to in a moment.

For now, I want to continue to talk about my own naivety and share this story as a way to help others who may be struggling with a similar situation.  Recall that Indigenous Peoples are under attack by the successor state of Canada who above all, desire the lands and resources of Turtle Island.  There is nothing more troubling than watching our children go without, be denied opportunities and be compelled to learn information that has little or no connection to their identity because they are the unwilling subjects of this attack.    The situation in its entirety is unacceptable, unconstitutional and illegal.  Venne (2007) writes that,

TheInternational Court of Justice decision in the Western Sahara case stated that land occupied by a group of people who organized themselves socially and politically could not be considered terra nullius. The Court pronounced that the only way for a foreign sovereign to acquire any right to enter into territories that are not terra nullius is with the freely informed consent of the original inhabitants through an agreement. This is international law. It has been encoded into British law since the Royal Proclamation of 1763 and Canadian law since the colony was founded. (Venne, 2007).

At the time that I was the Education Coordinator, I was not aware of these nuances. Being educated in the provincial system, I did not realize that Canada was not a nation in international law and had been permitted lands for peaceful settlement only and solely because of the Treaties that had been made between our Nations and the British Crown.  I did not realize that only Nations could enter into Treaties.  I did not realize that Canada, as a successor state, was not entitled to resources and had no right to alter the Treaties.  As Venne (2007) writes, “Canada may want to rid itself of those Treaties, but Canada possesses no legal right to change them.”    And I did not realize the extent to which Canada had no right or authority whatsoever to dictate or interfere with our inherent right to educate and pass on our ways of knowing to our children.   I know it now.   I acquired understanding as I went and I am grateful to every single educator that I encountered who was patient with me while I underwent this learning.

I must share that many experienced educators and policy analysts saw right through the First Nations Partnership Program, which had been designed to result in a tripartite agreement between the federal government, the provincial government and First Nations (INAC, 2009).   Though this was so clearly an effort to implement the 1969 White Paper, difficulty arose for many First Nations communities because their schools had been so systemically underfunded that the opportunity for funding to improve the education experience for their kids was understandably attractive.  Looking back now, I sometime feel that of all the strategies that Canada has utilized to assimilate Indigenous Peoples, the education reform agenda is among the most disgraceful, packaged as it was in the aftermath of the apology to the survivors of the residential schools.  The other program in this suite, the First Nations Student Succcess Program targeted literacy, numeracy and student retention (INAC, 2012).  The Education Information System is intended to collect data (INAC, 2012).  In my opinion, it is easy to see how these two programs could be utilized as a way to paint a picture that First Nations students were failing in on reserve schools and needed to become a part of the provincial system.   First Nations communities were encouraged to submit proposals together.   In essence, the federal government was (is) attempting to shepherd First Nation communities into aggregate type school board amalgamations and have them sign for educational services with the provincial governments.  As mentioned, this particular education strategy was one that First Nations had seen before in the White Paper, which stated the government’s intention that there would be only one service delivery agent (Venne, 2013).   In essence – the education reform of phase one and phase two, might more aptly be named ‘White Paper Implementation Plan A and Plan B”.  The goals of each are identical.

The funding mechanism for First Nations is fundamentally flawed.  Almost all of the First Nation schools on Turtle Island are funded through what is called the band operated funding formula, which has been capped for growth since the late 1990s (FNEC, 2009).  Ultimately, this is because there are treaty grievances and legal matters regarding lands that have to be resolved to give First Nations access to the revenues flowing from the resources that the state of Canada has been usurping.  It is my intention to deliver this message kindly but firmly - it is essential to remember that Canada has no legal authority to be utilizing these resources in the manner that it is, much less setting the criteria for how First Nations are able to use these resources to educate our children.    Canada tells First Nations that the only way it can flow equitable funding to First Nation schools is if there is a tripartite agreement in place or if there is a statutory obligation to do so via legislation.  This is about as bold of a lie as it gets.   In fact, there are at least two other ways.  There is no reason why First Nations cannot have a direct relationship with the Treasury Board.  There is no reason why a new funding formula could not have provided for the comprehensive needs of First Nation students and schools that is both equitable and cost driven.   The First Nations Education Council of Quebec established exactly the latter and constructed it in a manner that it could be adapted across Turtle Island (FNEC, 2009)

Supporting Equitable Funding Framework

 .  But with the propagation of this lie, Canada sets the trap.  And it is our job to step around it and point out to others where it lays, what it plans to do and to continue to share our original knowledges and fulfill our responsibilities regardless.  It is unfortunate that it has to be this way right now, but there you have it.

By the summer of 2010 First Nations, tired yet conscious of the lies, were again ready to challenge the federal government to do better.  Three regional organizations, Saskatchewan, Ontario and Quebec met with the intention of organizing rallies to raise awareness in their regions, eventually inviting other regions to do the same.  The Assembly of First Nations (AFN) was asked, in their capacity as a facilitator and advocacy body, to alert other regional organizations to the event.  So on September 23, 2010, First Nations in Ontario and other parts of Turtle Island rallied together and reminded the federal government of the importance to honour the treaty relationship and the treaty right to education.  This was not the only pressure the federal government was experiencing.  International pressures were mounting and Canada was hard pressed to explain to potential trade partners that they were able to proceed with new business arrangements (Henderson and Wakeham, 2009) while at the same time explain to human rights and racial discrimination committees why they were continuing an aggressive assimilation agenda against Indigenous Peoples.

Eager perhaps to make headway on longstanding problems, the Assembly of First Nations entered into what was called the AFN/INAC Action Plan in the summer of 2011.  It was to say the least – a poorly orchestrated move for several reasons that should probably be addressed in another paper at some point.   This is my opinion.  Nonetheless, it addressed four areas, one of which was education.  Shortly thereafter, an announcement came forward that a national panel would be convened to study and report on the issue of First Nation education, and in particular, the option of a First Nations Education Act.  Ontario was one of three regions that opted out of the national panel process.  All three provinces realized early on that this process was little more than an effort to legitimize the imposition of legislation – substantive reporting had already been completed by First Nations, First Nations Organizations, A Royal Commission, the Auditor General, the Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs and a Parliamentary Budget Officer.  The panel concluded their report in early 2012.  The three provinces to opt out of the process also created their own report.  At the same time, rumblings began about a potential meeting between First Nations and Prime Minister Harper.   That meeting took place one full year before the most recent January 2013 event. A comparison of the two events would be very interesting.  That’s a story for another time as well.

It is now August 2013 and for all intents and purposes, education legislation will be introduced in the next three months.  “Consultation” sessions on the draft legislation were held in early 2013 and many organizations have expressed their dismay with the process.  In ways, the legislation is a blueprint for disaster and it is my hope that it will not go forward. Canada is keen to pass legislation because it does not want to honour the Treaties.  It would prefer to undermine and undercut the Treaties by placing our rights under their system (Venne, 2013). But we can and must continue to insist upon the implementation of the Treaties.  Honouring the living spirit and intent of the Treaties and sharing their meaning with our treaty partners, gives us strength.  It maintains the peace and friendship in our relationships.  There are many things that I have learned and want to share about education that I do not have the space to record here.  But I share this particular piece now because I believe that having information about the intentions and histories of education policy helped me to understand how Canada continues to try trick us into forgetting the Treaties and our responsibilities to the lands.  It is much easier to see other possibilities and solutions that do not compromise our rights and responsibilities when we have the benefit of the whole story and truthful information.  Learning our stories helped me to see past the lie.  If I had not had the opportunity to examine the history and connect these dots – I might be asked a question like we were for this essay and have written that legislation is an answer.  It is not.  When I look at education now, I see with hope.  I see a path that we are all and have always been apart of.  We still have our ways and we have ideas about how to share that knowledge in our schools and among our families.  We have education expertise. We have people.  We have spirit.

 I believe in our educators and in our kids.  We can make the education experience amazing for them. I believe in our stories and their ability to facilitate excellence in every subject from math to physics.  I am very grateful for any and all of the ways that I get to help.

  I came home, because there were so many good ideas in our community that maybe just need an extra set of hands to help with the amount of work that needs to be done.  And though I love being home, I want to make sure that I don't forget to help those who are still trying to share the news of what Canada is doing and who work to remind Canada that the implementation of the Treaties must occur.  I have a lot of compassion for these advocates - it is not easy work to do.  We can all help in this.  Remember that education is a treaty right.  Recall that it is an inherent right.    Don’t believe the hype.  

Thanks for reading.  And if you have the opportunity -  check out this video!  It's wonderful and extremely informative.

Nya:weh, S