When Stephen Harper apologized to the First Nations five years ago for residential schools and the lasting harm they caused, there was hope of a new direction for aboriginal education. 

But the newly proposed First Nations Education Act (FNEA) is drawing an overwhelmingly negative reaction from aboriginal leaders and educators, and criticism that the government plan lacks vision and flexibility.

"No educational system is perfect, yet few have been as destructive to human potential as Canada’s, with its obsession with paternalism and assimilation and racialized discourses," writes Marie Battiste, former director of the Aboriginal Education Research Centre at the University of Saskatchewan, in her new book Decolonizing Education: Nourishing the Learning Spirit.

Battiste proposes "a system that values and respects Indigenous ways of knowing and allows aboriginal students to embrace and celebrate who they are instead of making them doubt themselves."


In her just published book, Decolonizing Education, Marie Battiste proposes a new model of Aboriginal education.

While interesting ideas and programs exist in different parts of the country, little of that is reflected in the FNEA.

Even the exciting possibilities that new online technologies offer for education, especially for remote communities, only show up in the document in the form of a few references to a First Nations "internet site" as a place to post bylaws.

In broad strokes, the FNEA sets out:

  • Rules and requirements for First Nations to educate their children, either by administering their own school, establishing a First Nation Education Authority, or through an arrangement with a provincial system.
  • How the First Nations will be accountable to the federal government on education.
  • Gives the aboriginal affairs minister the power to temporarily take  over a school.

A federal responsibility, 'under-funded'

The Canadian Constitution makes education a provincial responsibility, except for aboriginal education, which goes under the federal umbrella. The Crown also has an obligation to provide education under various treaties with First Nations.

The federal government spends well over $1 billion annually educating aboriginal children, although much of that money goes to provincial governments since most of the kids go to provincial schools. Nova Scotia, for example, received $9,000 per student in 2012.

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First Nations leaders are calling on the federal government to provide adequate funding for education and to given First Nations control of their own education systems. (Troy Fleece/Canadian Press)

Although Aboriginal Affairs does not make the numbers public, the amount it pays per student in on-reserve schools is said to be much less.

While First Nations leaders say under-funding is a critical education issue which the FNEA does not address, Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt says that's because what his "government will not do is throw more money at a known system of education that proves to be failing."

“Mr. Valcourt, the minister, can talk all he wants about not funding a broken system, but who broke the system to begin with?” Derek Nepinak, grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, told CBC News.

And all sides in the debate agree the system is broken. Only 38 per cent of on-reserve students finish high school, literacy rates are half the Canadian average, and the youth suicide rate is seven times the Canadian average.

While emphasizing the importance of the funding issue, Gilbert Whiteduck, chief of the Kitigan Zibi First Nation in Quebec, added on CBC Radio last week that the federal government "cannot tell us what is good for us. They need to support what it is we're trying to advance, and that's First Nations control of First Nations education."

Battiste told CBC News that it's very important that First Nations "have an opportunity to discuss and plan and work within their own groups to be able to arrive at their own kind of legislation for themselves," stressing those last two words.

'Build upon notions of success'

For Battiste, the thinking about aboriginal education in Canada needs to move away from asking, "How can they succeed in our system?" to asking, "'How can we build from something that they have and build upon their notions of success, on their notions of self-determination, the things they wish to keep in their communities that are still viable, and important ways for transmitting knowledge, values and projecting that into the future?"

Tanya Leary, an award-winning educator, says that the FNEA's "one-size-fits-all approach won't work because our community needs are so different."


Tanya Leary receives the Prime Minister's Award for Teaching Excellence from Stephen Harper in 2012. (Courtesy Office of the Prime Minister)

She told CBC News that "communities have to come up with their own answers," but one thing is clear: "When students see themselves reflected in their learning, they are more likely to stay engaged and continue on with their education."

She has experienced Canada's aboriginal education system as a student, a teacher in both on-reserve and off-reserve schools (earning three times as much at the latter), a parent, and a manager.

Leary remembers doing well in an Ontario provincial school in her early teens, except for the subject of early Canadian history, when her own knowledge and experience clashed with what she was being taught. She dropped out of high school after a guidance counsellor told her she wasn’t cut out for university or college, but then decided she could make a difference, eventually getting her bachelor of education, becoming a teacher and later studying at Harvard. Last year, Stephen Harper presented her with a Prime Minister's Award for Teaching Excellence.

She told CBC News about an important learning experience early in her teaching career, at her Georgina Island First Nation, where the band had control over their own education system. Favourable circumstances allowed the community to develop a local curriculum.

"We decided to focus on literacy and numeracy in the morning and use our island as an outdoor classroom in the afternoons."

The program made connections to the land, culture and Chippewa traditions and "cultivated that knowledge," Leary explained.

"The kids all of the sudden were completely engaged in their learning and wanted to come to school," she said.

"We had parents who wouldn't come through the door because they didn't trust what happened inside the walls of that school, perhaps because of their experience in that school," but with the new program, parental engagement also increased.

The takeaway for Leary from this success: "We have to find out locally what works for our kids."

Mi'kmaq Education Act

Battiste, who also studied at Harvard, traces her roots back to the Mi'kmaq's Potlotek First Nation in Nova Scotia.


Education professor Marie Battiste says that under the Mi'kmaq Education Act, Mi'kmaw communities in Nova Scotia have shown successful results from having their own education system. (Courtesy Purich Publishing)

She pointed to the success of Mi’kmaw Kina’matnewey in Nova Scotia, an education authority created by the Mi'kmaq and the federal and provincial governments in 1999. It operates under its own education act, the only one in Canada that does so.

Mi’kmaw Kina’matnewey provides similar services to a large school board for 11 of the 13 Mi'kmaw communities in Nova Scotia.

Battiste's grandson is in the immersion program, giving him "an opportunity to build his education and his foundation on his own language."

She says the research shows that the system works for the students, "not only learning about themselves and their education and having better self-esteem and being better speakers and having more agency and power in the classrooms, but it also helps them to learn how to read in English, which is the striking kind of thing that nobody thought would have happened."

According to the Mi’kmaw Kina’matnewey annual report released earlier this month, 88 per cent of their students graduated from high school last year, just above the number for non-aboriginal Canadians.

Battiste points to another change the program has created, that the province is now "accepting that Mi'kmaw people have something good to offer and that they are moving toward understanding how to embrace Mi'kmaw humanity in a different kind of way."

Nevertheless, she adds that this system "cannot be the system for New Brunswick or Ontario or Alberta."

Leary says that in her work at Indspire, a charity which funds indigenous education programs, every day they ask, 'What will work?" Indspire has a "nurturing capacity" program that helps schools come up with their own ideas and document them. That way "they can share their success with the rest of the country and maybe that will work in one community, and maybe it won't.

"Communities have to come up with their own answers," Leary adds.