A new school system operated exclusively by First Nations officially opened in Manitoba on Wednesday.
The Manitoba First Nations School system made its debut with a ribbon cutting ceremony and a song by Grade 2 to Grade 4 students at Sgt. Tommy Prince School on the Brokenhead Ojibway Nation, about 65 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg.
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Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott says the government's support of the education system shows they are serious about advancing reconciliation.
"Ultimately it's this kind of school system that will represent the change that the whole country needs in order to ensure that First Nations children get the highest possible delivery of educational services," she said.
The school system was announced last December. The deal increased funding levels and puts jurisdiction over schools in 10 First Nations communities, supporting about 1,700 students, directly in the hands of Indigenous leaders.
"This is a wonderful change for us all because most of us have forgotten our own language and history," said Tanya Kent, who is in Grade 8 at Sgt. Tommy Prince School. "I think this is a great opportunity to reconnect with our origins and culture."
'Important that First Nations have control'
Chief Jim Bear of the Brokenhead Ojibway Nation said it was a historic partnership and important milestone that "is reconciliation in action."
First Nations schools on reserves are federally funded and for years they've received thousands of dollars less per student than provincially-run schools. The Liberal government committed to $2.6 billion over five years in its 2016 budget toward Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada education funding, with a goal to close the education gap. But that number has been criticized, including by Canada's parliamentary budget officer in 2016.
The Manitoba First Nations Education Resource Centre will run the new school division and, under the 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, officials said when the deal was announced last year.
"It's important that First Nations have control of our systems with proper funding," said Lorne Keeper, the executive director of the resource centre.
She said the partnership will create a new, culturally relevant, high quality education system — a plan that has been in the making since the early 1970s.
'Our own people will determine our destiny'
"Our people always understood the importance of education for creating a better life for future generations. Our elders taught us to look forward to the next seven generations," said Arlen Dumas, grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs.
"Today represents the next round of seven generations where our own people will determine our destiny and our future."
Officials at the ceremony said they want to make sure that the new school system can expand to include others that are interested.
Philpott joked that she was happy to be there, even though she was their second choice.
Students from the Sgt. Tommy Prince School invited Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in a video posted to Facebook. In response a few days later, Trudeau posted a Facebook video with the same playful tone, but ultimately said he wouldn't be able to make it.
The new funding and school system means that all students were given new backpacks at the start of the year, filled with supplies and a lunch bag, Nora Murdock, a director with the MFNSS said earlier this week. The teachers have also been equipped with upgraded materials and increased salaries.
There are new library books and updated resources for the math and special education program, Sgt. Tommy Prince School's principal said earlier this week.