Vanessa Testawich thinks a lot about First Nations education. The 27-year-old mother of two spends her days teaching her three-year-old son his ABCs while also doing online coursework for dual diplomas in accounting and management.

Testawich does this while waiting for her older son to return from his Grade 1 classes in a town near their home on the Duncan’s First Nation in Northwestern Alberta.

“My little guy travels on the bus one hour to school and an hour to get back,” she points out. 

She would prefer he spent less time on the bus. But she is not sure she would enrol her son in an on-reserve school were her First Nation to get one.

“I’d like to see a facility that is up to par with off-reserve schools so my child can feel pride,” she said.

'I’d like to see a facility that is up to par with off-reserve schools so my child can feel pride.'- Vanessa Testawich, parent, Duncan's First Nation

The issue of bringing reserve schools "up to par" received renewed attention yesterday as the Federal Government tabled Bill C-33, the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act (FNCFNEA).

Combined with announcements in this year’s federal budget, the FNCFNEA promises to dramatically overhaul on-reserve K-12 education: implementing provincial standards for diplomas, teachers and principals; increasing funding and creating a new Joint Committee of Educational Professionals (JCEP) that would advise the Aboriginal Affairs Minister.

Nationally, the on-reserve completion rate is just under 40 per cent compared to a national average of over 80 per cent. Part of that is due to social problems and the legacy of residential schools, but a big cause is also the inequity in government funding for First Nations education.

Right now, reserve schools get $3500 to $4000 less per student per year than provincial schools, according to the Assembly of First Nations and former TD Bank economist Don Drummond respectively.

The newly proposed money would boost core funding by about $3700 per student per year, starting in 2016, helping to close the funding gap. Testawich calls that “significant”, saying it would help “our kids to receive a fair education.”

'Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed of equality, not reasonable comparability.'- Wab Kinew

Yet in the bill tabled today, the government does not use the words fair or equal.

Instead it will fund education of a “quality reasonably comparable” to provincial schools in similar locations and with similar demographics.

This is not inspiring language.

Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed of equality, not reasonable comparability.

The chiefs' call for the inclusion of indigenous languages and cultures in the legislation has been answered, at least in part. There is a guarantee for funding for First Nations languages and cultures. However, it is not clear if First Nations language immersion schools will be supported. The bill says French or English must be taught and that First Nations languages can be offered in addition to that. That matter could be settled when regulations under the act are developed.

For some, bringing languages and cultures into schools is a way to counteract the cultural genocide wrought by residential schools. For Testawich, the rationale is simpler.

'“I became more motivated to pursue my educational goals. I feel that if I got [native studies] earlier I wouldn’t have wasted so much time, going in circles in my life."'- Vanessa Testawich, parent, Duncan's First Nation 

“It’s so important because I lived 22, 23 years of my life without knowing who I was," she said.

It was not until a college native studies class that she first learned about her people.  

“I became more motivated to pursue my educational goals. I feel that if I got that earlier I wouldn’t have wasted so much time, going in circles in my life."

She believes unequivocally that language and culture will help her sons lead fulfilling lives.

Bill C-33 not really controlled by First Nations

Of course Bill C-33 is not really First Nations control of First Nations education, it is more like First Nations input on First Nations education. Many on social media have criticized the amount of power centralized in the minister's hands. 

First Nations education Bernard Valcourt 20140224

Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt tabled the First Nations Control Over First Nations Education Act on Thursday, April 10, 2014. (Chris Wattie/Pool/The Canadian Press)

For its part, the AFN says they will work to establish a process by which individual bands are engaged in naming the committee members of the Joint Committee of Educational Professionals.  Again, much could depend on what First Nations negotiate.

First Nations will be able to establish their own education authorities, run their own schools or sign tuition agreements to send their kids to provincial schools.

Still, First Nations education authorities and schools will be subject to oversight, and could be placed under a “temporary administrator” if the Minister or the JCEP is not satisfied with their safety, academic or financial outcomes. Critics say this amounts to a form of third party management for reserve schools.

Testawich says she is torn on this point. She is not sure her community could oversee a robust education system today. However, that does not mean she favours Ministerial oversight either.

“The Minister running a school on-reserve? Would I send my sons there? Probably not. It goes back to the fears of residential schools.”

“I would rather take control over my sons’ education and put [them] in a provincial school” Testawich concludes, proving that even without the FNCFNEA, some First Nations people are already taking control of First Nations education.