Group of northern Alberta chiefs petitions for changes to Indian Act clauses on schools

A group of First Nations in northern Alberta is calling for changes to the Indian Act to give them more decision-making power over First Nations schools.

Athabascan Tribal Council wants 'free, prior and informed consent' added to relevant sections

The Orange Path petition is calling for changes to the Indian Act clauses on education to include First Nations' free, prior and informed consent. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

A group of First Nations in northern Alberta is calling for changes to the Indian Act to give them more decision-making power over First Nations schools.

"The Indian Act allows Canada to run our schools without our consent," said Peter Powder, chief of Mikisew Cree Nation and one of the shareholders with the Athabascan Tribal Council (ATC), which represents five First Nations in northern Alberta.

"We want to empower our nation and we want to have some control back."

On Wednesday, the ATC launched the Orange Path, a petition that aims to amend sections 114 and 115 of the Indian Act which maintain federal control over education for First Nations.

Chief Peter Powder and the Athabasca Tribal Council say changes to the Indian Act would be a form of reconciliation. (Athabasca Tribal Council)

The petition calls for those sections to include the phrase "free, prior and informed consent."

"Right now it doesn't allow us to control our own curriculum for our education," said Powder, who said the changes would have a "huge" impact on education for First Nations.

"We want people to be learning about the truth of Canada and what went on and how we feel the future should be designed. That's going to be on our hands and we want to be able to be part of it.

Powder and the ATC are calling on federal party leaders to support the petition. 

Jurisdiction transfers

In an emailed statement to CBC News, a spokesperson for Indigenous Services Canada said the department works with First Nations to develop regional education agreements under the Indian Act that address the education goals and priorities set by First Nations and that it is also working with various Indigenous groups "to implement their vision of self-government and self-determination outside of the Indian Act."

They said educational jurisdiction agreements with groups like the Mi'kmaw Kina'matnewey in Nova Scotia and the Anishinabek Nation in Ontario have already replaced Indian Act provisions, with full control of education having been transferred to these communities.

They added the department is also engaged in negotiations with other groups to transfer education jurisdiction, including Nishnawbe Aski Nation in Ontario and a number of B.C. First Nations represented by the First Nations Education Steering Committee.

Duty to consult

Karla Buffalo, the CEO of the ATC, said the amendments would ensure that something like the residential schools system could never happen again.

"One of the most important first steps of an act of reconciliation is to make changes in the Indian Act, particularly the clause that empowered the Canadian government for the development and creation of residential schools," said Buffalo, who is from Chipewyan Prairie First Nation.

As a mother of three school-aged children, Buffalo said she has been having conversations about the Orange Path initiative with them. Adding the phrase "free, prior and informed consent" to the two sections would signal First Nations control over their education, she said.

"It might seem small, but words matter," she said.

"We want to be in charge and we want to be directing the education of our children. We want it to be done in partnership."

Charles Cochrane, executive director of the Manitoba First Nations Education Resource Centre, said it's important to have First Nations input when it comes to education decisions affecting First Nations.

"Any changes to anything in education, in my mind, should be driven by our First Nations across the country," said Cochrane.

He pointed to recent proposed changes to Manitoba's public education system as an example of governments not working with First Nations leadership.

"It's very important and critical that there is that mechanism to have those discussions, and for our chiefs to provide their input in terms of making any changes to education, even if it's a provincial education system," said Cochrane.