A northern Ontario chief says Nishnawbe Aski Nation's declaration on education signals a new beginning for First Nations.

Chiefs from across NAN territory met in Thunder Bay for three days and, on Thursday, they pledged to protect the treaty rights of First Nations to govern their own education systems. That protection means including a curriculum that reflects native identity and culture.

Walter Naveau

Walter Naveau, chief of Mattagami First Nations. (Nicole Ireland/CBC)

Walter Naveau, chief of Mattagami First Nations said the education system has, so far, failed First Nation students.

"We got to start talking about our own history, our people, our leaders, our elders,” he said. “Let us give them the recognition.  First Nations … have vast, rich histories [in] each and every community..."

About 200 First Nation chiefs, councillors, educators, elders and youth stood in solidarity on the declaration.

'Infusing' First Nations culture into curriculum

Reclaiming treaty rights is the only way for First Nations to end more than a century of educational neglect by the federal government , said Deputy Grand Chief Goyce Kakegamic.

"We cannot live the way our ancestors lived, living off the land,” he said.

“We have to come in[to] this new livelihood and we see education as one of the means to achieve that."

Kakegamic said First Nations education must combine modern skills sets with traditional culture.

"We need to have our culture infused into our educational program … we also ... need urban society academics.”

Over the past few weeks NAN reports it has met with many municipal leaders to express its interest in developing collaborative working relationships to advocate for northern communities, both native and non-native, with a strong regional voice.

"We look forward to working closely with neighbouring municipalities to build and strengthen relationships and to look for ways to work together on regional education and economic development initiatives," said Kakegamic.

NAN reports it will continue negotiations with the federal government through the self-governance jurisdiction process to secure control of education jurisdiction in Nishnawbe Aski territory.