British Columbia

Several First Nations in B.C. set to take full control over education on their lands

The federal government holds jurisdiction over First Nations education, but in B.C. that is changing. Four First Nations have negotiated with Ottawa to take over full legal control of education on their reserves, and there are more set to vote on it.

Will develop school courses, set graduation requirements and certify teachers

Quw'utsun Smuneem Elementary School is one of two schools on the Cowichan Tribes reserve. A new agreement with the federal government means Cowichan Tribes will now have total control over education on reserve — including the ability to develop curriculum, set graduation requirements and certify teachers. (Belinda Pierre)

Advocates say it's a move 50 years in the making.

In 1972, the National Indian Brotherhood — now the Assembly of First Nations — issued a policy paper called Indian Control of Indian Education. In 2022, at least four First Nation groups in B.C. are getting that control. 

While most education is a provincial responsibility in Canada, First Nations education is under federal jurisdiction. But in 2006, the federal government passed legislation to allow individual First Nations in B.C. to take it over.

Now, after 15 years of negotiations, it's starting to happen. 

It's been a "long-standing quest," said Debbie Jeffrey, executive director of the First Nations Education Steering Committee, the group that advocated for the legislation. 

"It really is the embodiment of First Nations control of First Nations education, which has been a primary driver and principal of First Nations education since the policy paper was released in 1972," she said.

Tyrone McNeil, president of the First Nations education steering committee, speaks at an event celebrating the B.C. Tripartite Education Agreement in January 2019. There are now several mechanisms available to First Nations in B.C. to get more control over education. (First Nations Education Steering Committee/Twitter)

Thirteen First Nations have been been conducting their own negotiations with the federal government, hammering out education jurisdiction agreements. The agreements give the nations the power to develop curriculums, set graduation requirements and certify teachers and schools. They also make sure there is funding in place to do those things. 

On Jan. 9, the Cowichan Tribes on Vancouver Island became the fourth First Nation community — after the Lil'wat Nation, the Seabird Island Band and ʔaq̓am of the Ktunaxa Nation — whose members voted to ratify an agreement.

Parliament is expected to ratify it within a month, according to Stephanie Atleo, who negotiated on behalf of the Cowichan Tribes.

Later this year, she says the four communities will form a board to start working on curriculums and teacher certification guidelines. They'll be joined by other First Nations that ratify agreements between now and then and plan to implement the changes for the 2022-23 school year. 

An educator works on a cedar weaving math exercise at a First Nations education steering committee workshop in Vancouver. Teaching methods like this could be part of the new curriculum developed by B.C. First Nations that have negotiated jurisdiction over education. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC)

The provincial government has also been active. It passed legislation in October 2021 giving every First Nation with a jurisdiction agreement the right to certify and regulate teachers.

So far, only First Nations in B.C. have the legislative framework in place to negotiate jurisdiction. An attempt to create countrywide legislation did not pass in 2014. In some situations, jurisdiction has been handed over to First Nations in other provinces as part of modern treaties.

The Cowichan Tribes, the largest First Nation in B.C., will assume control of education on its reserve. (Facebook/Cowichan Tribes)

Atleo says the progress that's been made is tremendous.

"It's a very exciting time for us to take back that power, that governance, over education, and really work with our families and our children to see what would best serve them when they're in school," Atleo said.

She says the new curriculum will expand on what some nations, like hers, are already doing in on-reserve schools. That includes traditional ways of teaching.

"Land-based learning is huge. Our kids learn by seeing, by feeling, by doing," she said, adding that science class could happen on the water, and history class in the mountains, for example. 

Jo-ann Archibald, also known by her Stó:lō name Q'um Q'um Xiiem, says when she was going through the B.C. public school system as a child, she did not feel the curriculum represented Indigenous peoples, topics and approaches properly. She's excited to see that change with the new jurisdiction agreements. (Martin Dee / UBC)

While the new curriculum won't be the same as the one students follow in B.C. public schools, part of the agreement means students in on-reserve schools will still be able to qualify for post-secondary education.

Atleo says Cowichan Tribes hope to strengthen partnerships with their neighbouring school district, and even to share lesson plans with other schools so off-reserve and non-Indigenous students can benefit, too.  

Jo-ann Archibald Q'um Q'um Xiiem, a professor emeritus with the faculty of education at UBC, says these agreements are "vitally important."

She says they will allow families, elders and community members to help shape their children's education and that "having control over the education and the services ensures that they are meaningfully involved and [can] contribute." 

All three women say this is a sign of true reconciliation, and they hope it can be an example that Indigenous communities across the country can follow. 

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