Thousands of Indigenous Manitoba students will return to better-funded schools next fall with the creation of a new First Nations school board that will serve as an "inspiration" throughout Canada, according to the federal Minister of Indigenous Affairs Carolyn Bennett.

The board is designed and operated by Manitoba First Nations. The provincial government has no jurisdiction over it.

"This is totally unique and historic, because for the first time we will be able to fund a system that then is self-determining," Bennett told reporters after the signing ceremony Friday morning.

Bennett said the system is unique because the federal government will send funding to the school board itself.

"In other agreements, we're sending money to a chief and council that goes to a school. This way, we're building a school system run by a board, working in close collaboration with educators," she said.

"The educators will determine how they work in terms of curricula and professional development, hiring of faculty, staffing — this will be their system that we will fund."

Students will have access to more resources and opportunities as part of a new funding formula, said one of the Indigenous leaders who helped negotiate a new agreement.

"In terms of education, it's huge," said Jim Bear, chief of Manitoba's Brokenhead Ojibway Nation, northeast of Winnipeg.

"To be the architects of our own fate goes a long way, and in doing that, then we know that we will succeed, because we will have more of a vested interest rather than trying to administer somebody else's imposed system, which has never worked for us."

Bennett was in Winnipeg Friday morning for the signing ceremony for the creation of the new school board, which will serve 12 First Nations.

During the ceremony, Bennett told the crowd the board "will be an example to others."

"We've heard from First Nations youth from coast to coast to coast that what they want is language and culture, and education that incorporates the Indigenous pedagogy, which means learning by doing and on-the-land programming."

Years of underfunding

First Nations schools on reserves are federally funded, and for years, they've received thousands of dollars less per student than other schools.

Many can't afford language programs, computer labs or even sports uniforms. They can't pay teachers competitive salaries, so the turnover rate is high.

That inequity was part of a complaint to the Canadian Human Rights Commission. Last January, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruled that Ottawa discriminates against First Nation children on reserves by failing to provide the same level of child welfare services that exist elsewhere.

Sergeant Tommy Prince School, Brokenhead Ojibway Nation

First Nations schools are federally funded. For years, they've received thousands of dollars less per student than non-Indigenous schools. That's about to change for schools on 12 Manitoba First Nations. (CBC)

Those inequities have also been criticized recently by Canada's parliamentary budget officer, who said the Liberal government cannot explain how it calculates the amount of funding it provides for First Nations Education — or why it is nearly $600 million less than the average provincial education system.

This new agreement will raise the amount of money the federal government provides for each student's education. The overall increase is approximately 51 per cent, making it comparable to the provincial funding levels for non-Indigenous students, according to Nora Murdock of the Manitoba First Nations Education Resource Centre, which will run the new school division.

Murdock will be the director of systems development for the division, the equivalent of a superintendent, she said.

For example, the Brokenhead Ojibway Nation receives approximately $6,000 per student per year. Under the new school board and funding model, that will increase to nearly $17,000, said Kevin Kipling, Brokenhead's director of education.

"Our children, our families, our future leaders are going to benefit from this process moving forward," he said.

"We had a high dropout rate as they reached the high school. We went back and wondered, why is that happening? The problem is they are not getting the same curriculum in math, let's say, as they are offering in other schools. It comes down to a lack of funding and resources."

Under this agreement, each participating First Nation's education funding will go directly from the federal government to the new school board. Ten per cent of it will cover administrative fees, and the rest will be spent based on decisions made with each community.

An equal opportunity

That will make a big difference in the everyday life of students, said Rhonda Michaud, principal of Brokenhead's Sergeant Tommy Prince School.

"They're going to get that equal opportunity with resources and teachers and having the supplies they need and extracurricular in culture, music, art. They want to go play hockey, but why do they have to go to some other community to play hockey, as well as soccer and those kind of things," she said.

Rhonda Michaud, principal Sergeant Tommy Prince School

Rhonda Michaud, principal of the Sergeant Tommy Prince School, says being part of a First Nations school system will mean more access to resources and funds. She hopes it will result in a higher graduation rate for her students. (CBC)

Michaud hopes to build a science lab and stock the library, as well as hire a resource teacher and more educational assistants.

The money will provide support for Indigenous languages, culture and programming. It will also mean staff will be paid comparable salaries.

The goal is to raise academic standards on-reserve and increase the graduation rates, Michaud said.

"I'm excited for the children to have this opportunity.… They're our children in Canada, they're First Nations children, but they should be also equal to what the provincial standards are," she said.

Twelve Manitoba First Nations signed on to the new school system. It includes 13 schools with approximately 3,000 students, mostly in nursery to Grade 8. Two provide high school programming.

Membership has been capped at 12 First Nations for 2017-18, but other communities can apply to join for the 2018-19 academic year. Four other First Nations have already indicated interest.

"I just think this is a great opportunity, and it's very historic," said Murdock.

"Manitoba First Nations have worked a long time for developing a system for our First Nations. I think it's a real culmination of many, many plans and many discussions for many years."

Increased funding for First Nations education was one of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's first promises in the federal election campaign. He pledged $2.6 billion over four years. That was later revised to $2.6 billion over five years, in the 2016 federal budget.

First Nations taking part:

Bloodvein First Nation.
Brokenhead Ojibway Nation.
Dakota Plains First Nation.
Fox Lake Cree Nation.
Lake Manitoba First Nation.
Lake St. Martin First Nation.
Pinaymootang First Nation.
Roseau River Anishinabe First Nation.
Sagkeeng First Nation.
York Factory First Nation.
Mathias Colomb Cree Nation.
Keeseekownenin Ojibway First Nation.

With files from Cameron Macintosh and Angela Johnston