Thunder Bay

First Nations education: Are we still getting it wrong?

From residential schools to forcing teens to leave their remote communities for high school, federal education policy still means assimilation, leaders in a northern Ontario First Nation say.

'I don't think this is an accident. I think it's planned that way,' education director says of underfunding

About 300 students attend the Aglace Chapman Education Centre in Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug, originally built in the 1960s. (Jody Porter/CBC)

The federal government is purposely limiting funding for First Nations schools in a continued attempt to use education as a tool of assimilation, according to the director of education in Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug, a remote First Nation 600 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, Ont.

"I don't think this is an accident. I think it's planned that way," said Bill Sainnawap. "I used to call it a failure system, a built in failure system."

A CBC News investigation revealed that First Nations schools can receive significantly less funding from the federal government than provincially funded schools in the same region.

For example, the French Catholic school in Thunder Bay receives more than $27,000 per student per year, while remote First Nations in the same region receive approximately $13,000 per student per year, according to documents submitted at a coroner's inquest.

First Nations schools are expected to deliver the provincial curriculum, despite the discrepancy in funding.

Kitchenuhmaykoosib Education Authority director Bill Sainnawap remains hopeful the Liberal government will deliver on its promises to improve First Nations education. (Jody Porter/CBC)

"It's a foreign program. It's meaningless. You cannot identify with it at all, therefore you have a high rate of drop out," Sainnawap said.

Sainnawap isn't alone in his opinion that federal education policy is a deliberate attempt to undermine the community.

"That's the way the government works. They try to get rid of us," residential school survivor Bill Morris said. "Even my kids now — they want to get rid of us, in a way. It's land. It has to do with land and jurisdiction."

In Kitchenuhmaykoosib, that doesn't sound like a conspiracy theory. Less than a decade ago, the chief and council were sent to jail for standing in the way of a mining company trying to drill on land people here use for traditional activities.

The community has since encoded its own traditional laws on land use and governance, and people here want their children to be educated in their own culture, so they can contribute to their own future.

The limited funding means no high school classes are offered beyond Grade 10, and teens who want a diploma must leave their community and their family to attend school in a strange town or city.

Kimberly Kakekayash, 15, will have to leave home next fall for Grade 11. School in Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug only goes to Grade 10. (Jody Porter/CBC)
It's a decision facing 15-year-old Kimberly Kakekayash next fall. She wants to finish high school, but she doesn't want to leave.

"I just I grew up here," she said.

What does she like about her First Nation? "The sky looks pretty and the water looks nice."

The land, water and trees surrounding Kitchenuhmaykoosib have more to offer young people than beauty, according to people here.

"That's the way the government works: they try to get rid of us," says residential school survivor Bill Morris. (Jody Porter/CBC)
For residential school survivors like Bill Morris, being on the land and learning from community elders brought healing from the abuses he experienced as a student.

Resident Steven Chapman said a land-based education is needed to prepare young people here for a future where climate change and political upheaval may make cities unlivable and survival will depend on being able to live off the land.

"I think we need to teach our children here about our old way of life, because I think it's going to come back," Chapman said. 

Listening to educators

The federal budget provides $2.6 billion over five years for First Nations education, and the minister of Indigenous Affairs said she is open to changing the education system.

"That's where we know we've got to go, in terms of listening to educators, to develop those systems, whether that's changing the school year, whether that's curricula changes, professional development," Carolyn Bennett told CBC News in September.

As things stand, Sainnawap sees too much time spent preparing teens like Kakekayash for life outside the community that needs their skills and their energy to grow.

"We're preparing kids to live in white society where competition is the norm, here we have cooperation as a foundation," he said.