Treaty 4 group sees hope for better on-reserve education in new agreement with Indigenous Services

The chair of the Treaty 4 Education Alliance is encouraged by a letter of understanding (LOU) signed with Canada's Indigenous Services minister, which he says is a roadmap to better meeting the needs of First Nations when it comes to on-reserve education.

Education alliance chair says Letter of Understanding will help address school needs of member First Nations

Chief Reginald (Reg) Bellerose is the chair of the Treaty 4 Education Alliance. He says the Letter of Understanding he signed more than a week ago with the Department of Indigenous Services is a road map to an on-reserve education system based in treaty. (Don Somers/CBC)

The chair of the Treaty 4 Education Alliance is encouraged by a letter of understanding (LOU) signed with Canada's Indigenous Services minister more than a week ago.

According to Reginald (Reg) Bellerose, chief of Muskowekwan First Nation in Saskatchewan, the LOU is a roadmap to better meeting the needs of First Nations that are part of the Treaty 4 Education Alliance (T4EA) when it comes to on-reserve education.

The LOU specifically recognizes the importance of education from a treaty perspective and according to the T4EA board chair, treaty is the most important piece of it.  

"We have a treaty and inherent right to education," said Bellerose.

"The one room schoolhouse is still very powerful. It's the modern version of the education system."

He added that the LOU ensures schools of the T4EA will get funding not comparable to provincial funding, "but one that's based on treaty."

Treaty 4 was signed on Sept. 15, 1874 and encompasses much of what is now southern Saskatchewan and small parts of Alberta and Manitoba. The text in the treaty states that the Crown "agrees to maintain a school in the reserve allotted to each band as soon as they settle on said reserve and are prepared for a teacher."

Bellerose said it's important to remember First Nations didn't sign treaties with the Department of Indigenous Services, they signed with the Crown.

"The position of the chiefs is we should deal with Trudeau and his entire cabinet and his entire government, not just one department," said Bellerose.  

The LOU specifically recognizes the importance of education from a treaty perspective and according to the T4EA board chair, treaty is the most important piece of it. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Recognizing treaty rights

According to Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott, the LOU is a way for the government to show its firm commitment to working with First Nations to ensure students on-reserve can obtain a great education.

"[It's] a new way of leading on education and us being there as a supportive partner to provide resources," said Philpott.

She said the LOU also represents the government's commitment to encourage Treaty 4 chiefs in their desire to transform the on-reserve education system.

She added the agreement is in line with the government's efforts to renew relationships with First Nations in Canada.

"We've had very much a focus on the recognition of rights ... both inherent Indigenous rights as well as treaty rights," said Philpott.

Treaty 4 Education Alliance is working with 12 First Nations in Saskatchewan's Treaty 4 territory, and Bellerose said each has its own specific needs when it comes to education.

"Some in the Treaty 4 territory have a higher priority on language because in some schools, some First Nations, there's very few [Indigenous] language speakers," he said. 

"But we'll let those First Nations determine those priorities, not us."

Language education

White Bear First Nation is one of the 12 reserves working with the T4EA. Located approximately 200 km east of Regina, it has a K-12 school with a basic adult education program.

Chief Nathan Pasap said the LOU is a step toward fixing the inequalities of funding for First Nations schools. For them, cultural education is most important.

"We're really looking at language revitalization right now," said Pasap.

White Bear First Nation has four different tribes represented in its band membership: Cree, Nakoda, Dakota and Saulteaux.

"We're still working towards slowly implementing all of them at some point into our curriculum," said Pasap.

Language, culture and community will be built into their schooling model because "they need to be intertwined," he said.

Aging portables

Fishing Lake First Nation, located approximately 200 km north of Regina, is also part of the T4EA. Its K-12 school principal outlined a different set of needs.

"We're housing our students in portable spaces and each teacher is teaching three grades," said Melanie Laplante.

"We are currently running without a library, without a gym facility, without any special equipment a regular high school or elementary would have."

The K-12 school portables have a 10-year life span and Laplante said this is the 13th year the portables have been in use.

Laplante, who is a member of Fishing Lake First Nation, said this new LOU will help with the plans for a new school which has been in talks since 2013.

The next step is for the T4EA and the federal government to begin negotiations on the fiscal responsibilities of the LOU.

About the Author

Brad Bellegarde

Reporter for CBC Indigenous based in Saskatchewan

Born and raised in Treaty 4 Territory, he holds an Indian Communication Arts Certificate from the First Nations University of Canada and a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism from the University of Regina. Follow him on Twitter @BBellegardeCBC