Feds need to be schooled on First Nations education

A new First Nations education act has been put on a shelf because the Harper government and First Nations leaders disagree about three vital issues. Somewhat lost in all this is the meaning of education itself.
The federal government has put its controversial First Nations education act 'on hold' until the Assembly of First Nations 'clarifies' its position on the legislation. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

A new First Nations education act has been put on a shelf because the Harper government and First Nations leaders disagree about three vital issues.

One, First Nations leaders claim the act was developed without meaningful consultation with them. 

Two, although the new act promises an increase in funding, First Nations leaders say it isn't enough to close the gap between what is spent on each indigenous student versus other Canadian children. That gap is estimated at $2,000 to $4,000.

Perhaps what First Nations leaders are saying about incorporating indigenous knowledge and values and systems of delivery is ​far more important than what mainstream educators are willing to concede.- Don Marks

Finally, the federal government is making the increase in funding contingent on reaching certain academic standards. 

Somewhat lost in all of this is the meaning of education itself.

There is a huge difference not only in the content of education, which is meaningful to First Nations, but in the manner in which education is delivered.  This discussion must dictate all areas of whatever act is developed if education is to serve the purpose for which it is intended — to prepare young people to be positive and productive citizens in the future.

It is difficult to argue that education is not the panacea for the social and economic ills that First Nations people face.  The most successful citizens are generally the ones with the most education​,​ whether that be a high school graduate who holds down a good job on an assembly line, a vocational grad who makes some good coin as a carpenter or a welder, or a professional such as a lawyer or a doctor or an engineer.

At the same time, the fact that so many First Nations students fail at the education that is presently being offered to them tells us something just as important. Perhaps what First Nations leaders are saying about incorporating indigenous knowledge and values and systems of delivery is ​far more important than mainstream educators are willing to concede.
Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Bernard Valcourt responds during question period in Ottawa on February 14, 2014. The B.C. Metis Federation says a 2012 review, only recently made public, raises what it calls "a number of very serious issues that demand immediate answers and full public disclosure." THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

First Nations' history and culture was never considered important in education for most of the 20th century. When it was introduced, it was mostly in a token way, some kind of “add on” — perhaps to make indigenous students feel a little more comfortable in class or provide them with a sense of identity and pride.

Actually, if we take a closer look at the benefits that indigenous history and values can provide for a First Nations student, it certainly makes more sense than biology or chemistry if we want to serve the ultimate goal of education as stated previously.

7 First Nations teachings

I am going to keep it simple by introducing some of the most basic First Nations teachings. 

There are seven of them — respect, love, goodness, truth, courage, humility and knowledge. 

This isn’t some simple lesson by which a teacher says, “these are good things, do them.” 

First Nations teach these values using history, biology, zoology and philosophy, which is all connected using a medicine wheel.

So, imagine if our young people learn these values thoroughly and carry them in their hearts and minds throughout their lives as they pursue careers, raise families and interact with society.

They are less likely to join street gangs whose teachings are mainly criminal.

But more importantly, the applicable knowledge they will need to hold down a job and pursue a career will be enhanced.

The delivery system used by First Nations educators has always been different from mainstream Canadian society as well. In mainstream education systems, students are generally taught a certain amount of knowledge in a certain amount of time and then the students are tested on what they have learned.

First Nations education was always based on the individual​ and ​each ​child was taught ​l​essons when they were ready to learn them.

Yes, there were many frustrating times for First Nations teachers who tell children, “this is what you should know​,​ but I can’t make you know until you are ready to learn​,​ so we are just going to have to wait until that time comes to you in your life.”

We can see the impracticalities in this system of learning,​ but we can also see the conflict in delivery systems that can only be resolved through meaningful consultation and the importance of developing meaningful ​​curricula and ​a ​delivery system for First Nations students which is based in indigenous history, lifestyle and culture.

And that's why the First Nations education act is on a shelf.

Don Marks is the editor of Grassroots News.


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