Out in the Open

Why Manitoba First Nations are approaching new education funding with caution

Dakota Plains First Nation hasn’t had a high school graduate in almost 30 years. A new Indigenous-run school board could turn things around, but other First Nations in Manitoba have already rejected the idea.

A new Indigenous-run school board means more money, but some communities have already rejected it

Joan Smoke stands in her classroom at the elementary school on Dakota Plains First Nation in Manitoba. (Sam Colbert/CBC)

Dakota Plains First Nation doesn't have a high school.

Only a couple hundred people live on the Manitoba reserve, which is about an hour and a half west of Winnipeg. So a school bus transports teens to the nearby town of Portage la Prairie every morning.

Don Smoke remembers the culture shock of going from the band-operated elementary school in his community to the provincially run high school in town. He said it's a tough transition for a lot of students.

It's so tough, Smoke was the last Dakota Plains commuter to finish Grade 12. That was in 1989.

"Academically, our students are ready to go," Smoke said of the Grade 8 students on the reserve. "But once they hit Portage, they have a hard time fitting in."

Funding gap

Smoke is now the director of education at Dakota Plains. His wife, Joan Smoke, is the principal of the school there.

Most on-reserve schools are run individually by the First Nations' chiefs and councils, outside of provincial school boards, with funding coming directly from the federal government. But that funding has fallen well short of comparable public schools in the past few decades.

Dakota Plains School — also known by its Dakota-language name, Mahpiya Hdega School — in Manitoba has about 80 students, many of which come from the neighbouring Long Plain First Nation. (Sam Colbert/CBC)

In 2016, TD Bank's former chief economist estimated that per-student spending on First Nations students was 30 per cent less than on children at public schools. Also that year, the federal government's parliamentary budget office pegged the annual shortfall in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

In part due to a lack of funding, reserve schools have difficulty attracting and retaining teachers. And graduation rates for First Nations students in Canada tend to be lower than for other young people. 

Indigenous-run school board

The federal government has announced spending to help close the funding gap. But this school year, 10 communities in Manitoba joined a novel approach to Indigenous education in Canada: the Manitoba First Nations School System, an Indigenous-run school board that has meant significantly more money for its member schools.

Dakota Plains School — also know by its Dakota-language name, Mahpiya Hdega School — is one of those 10 schools that have chosen to aggregate. "With the system coming along and getting us to where we are, in the seven or eight months it's been already, it's huge," said Smoke, the education director, adding that the community had considered shutting down the school after years of underpaying its teachers. "I just see better things coming."

Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott and Lorne Keeper, the executive director of Manitoba First Nations Education Resource Centre, hold the scissors after the ribbon cutting in October for the Manitoba First Nations School System at Sgt. Tommy Prince School on the Brokenhead Ojibway Nation. (Meagan Fiddler/CBC)

In addition to more competitive staff salaries, joining the new system has allowed Dakota Plains school to replenish its school supplies, make repairs to the building itself, and access extra staff for special education and cultural programming.

"We just took a leap of faith, and I think it's benefiting us hugely," said school principal Joan Smoke. "It's an exciting time to be in Indigenous education in Manitoba right now."

'Right to self-determination'

But when the school board's leadership contacted the province's 58 First Nation schools prior to this school year, not all were prepared to come on board.

"We decided at the end of the day that it wasn't a good decision to join," said David Crate, chief of Fisher River Cree Nation. The K-12 school in his community is larger, at about 500 students, which meant they were receiving more federal money overall. But Crate said the per-student funding "isn't even close" to what public schools receive.

Even still, Fisher River decided to pass on membership in the better-funded school system this year.

"I've always talked about respecting communities, their autonomy, their right to self-determination," Crate said. "And if they make a decision that they're not going to be involved with the new school division, that has to be respected."

Lorne Keeper is the executive director of the Manitoba First Nations Education Resource Centre, which administers the new school system. He can appreciate why a community might not want to be part of it. "In doing a collective ... the concern may be of perhaps losing some autonomy," said Keeper.

Normally, education dollars flow from the government to the First Nation to the school. The new school system cuts the nation's chief and council out of the arrangement, funding schools directly.

Keeper acknowledged that historical context might also make communities wary of giving up any control over their schools, even to an Indigenous-led system.

In 1969, the government of then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau produced a White Paper that suggested abolishing all legal standing for Indigenous people in Canada, including treaties and status under the Indian Act. In response, Indigenous groups published their own documents. A paper published by the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs called for communities to take control of their own schools.

"I know as a teacher, I was very proud of the fact that we were getting back, rightfully, the right to mandate our own system," said Keeper of that period in the early 1970s.

The plan is to expand the new school system from 10 to 15 schools next year. Keeper believes many First Nations in the province are taking a "wait and see" approach as they observe the schools that did join.

Don and Joan Smoke are the education director and school principal, respectively, at Dakota Plains First Nation in Manitoba. (Sam Colbert/CBC)

Breaking the cycle

So far, the staff at Dakota Plains school have few complaints with the new school board. Don and Joan Smoke are feeling optimistic about the futures of their students under the new funding model.

And after nearly three decades without a graduate, a student from the community is on the verge of completing high school in Portage la Prairie this year.

"He lost his mom when he was in seventh grade here," said Joan. "All of our staff attended his mom's funeral. His dad was not a part of his life. There was this old saying that it takes a community to raise a child, and in our communities, that is absolutely true."

She says she's spent countless hours of her spare time tutoring the student over the years. For her, education is the key to helping Indigenous kids break cycles of poverty that have persisted in their communities.

"People have built into this kid," she said. "He's one of ours – he's one of ours from here, from our school. It's going to be really cool to see him cross the stage. Because that's what we wait for."

This story appears in the Out in the Open episode "Letting Go".