Give the First Nations Education Act a Chance


THE ISRAELI DIPLOMAT, orator and polyglot, Abba Eban, is today memorialized in the truism that men and nations behave wisely only once they have exhausted all the other alternatives. In the case of Canada’s exhausted Indian Act policies, the alternatives to a wiser course have been many as well as durable, as we all know. Thus it is with surprise, and enthusiasm even, that the Assembly of First Nations is this week absorbing Canada’s late acceptance of the five “Conditions for the Success of First Nations Education,” enunciated in the AFN’s December 2013 unanimous resolution and enshrined in Finance Minister Flaherty’s 2014 budget. These conditions are as follows:

1. Respect and recognition of inherent rights and title, Treaty Rights and First Nations control of First Nations education jurisdiction.
2. Statutory guarantee of funding.
3. Funding to support First Nations education systems that are grounded in Indigenous languages and cultures
4. Mechanisms to ensure reciprocal accountability and no unilateral federal oversight or authority.
5. Ongoing meaningful dialogue and co-development of options

I mentioned Eban for another reason, having to do with symmetry. For he once observed of the Palestinians that they “never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity,” and indeed it’s well worth reflecting on this dark theme of opportunity foregone as we consider the divisive and acrimonious responses to the February 7 Harper-Atleo agreement-in-principle.

Verna Kirkness, a signatory of the 1972 National Indian Brotherhood report Indian Control of Indian Education, has recently recounted – in a book modishly titled Creating Space – the “ill-conceived plan” of the NIB to shed its leadership precisely at the moment the federal government had conceded the wisdom of the Brotherhood’s proposal of Indian parental responsibility and local control of Indian education. “To this day,” she writes:

I have no idea how we could all abandon ship at the same time. It was a disastrous move. The end result was that a new president was elected for the NIB. In time, the joint NIB-Cabinet committee was disbanded and the work of our joint working committee to revise the Indian Act was lost. I often wonder how different the policy of Indian Control of Indian Education would look today had the revision to the Indian Act been accomplished.

A mere three years prior to Indian Control of Indian Education and an abrupt federal change of course, Trudeau had introduced his White Paper, ruminating in public the extinguishment of treaties and the abolition of the Indian Department as native people were fully absorbed into the political, economic and cultural bloodstream of Canada. It took the non-violent but nonetheless resolute community occupation of the Blue Quill’s Indian Residential School to bring Jean Chrétien, then Minister of Indian Affairs, to the negotiating table – or as it was in this instance, the “Okay, enough already” table.

Thanks to this effort, by 1972 Blue Quill’s was the first native-administered school in Canada, thereby converting Indian Control of Indian Education from a book title to an active public policy principle. Other schools and educational systems would gradually follow, up to the present-day and often cited example of the Mi’kmaw Kina’matnewey. The feds by the 1970s had come to an agreement-in-principle along the lines of the education model first advanced by native people in the numbered treaty negotiations, a century prior. But like so many things related to Indian policy, good words were followed by quarter measures and half-assing, as well as by the persistent under-resourcing which guaranteed the systemic deprivations of Indian residential schools. Seen in their proper historical context, the lost opportunities and exhausted alternatives of 1972 were already well long in the tooth, and are precisely one generation longer today as we comprehend them in the call-to-action known as Shannen’s Dream.

The points not to be missed here are that we must all take seriously the proposition that we are currently on a course toward failure and that something resembling political backbone and boldness must follow. On the government’s side, a federal bureaucracy that in fact has no education department and no education expertise must give up its historical fondness for micromanagement; meanwhile, on the First Nation’s side, the time has arrived to take both the concept and practice of self-control and self-determination to their logical conclusions. Let’s call it getting our collective Indian act together. The last week has at the very least brought both halves of this proposition into the realm of the potential, a good place for a beginning.

It is unusual to write about a piece of federal legislation, in this case the “First Nations Education Act,” when in fact no such legislation exists. Like the White Paper, the FNEA was a trial balloon, introduced in October 2013 under the title “A Proposal for a Bill.” This proposal was widely and emphatically rejected by First Nations individuals, and in its place the February 7 principles have been substituted. What exists as of Budget Day 2014 is not “an agreement” so much as agreement itself: agreement to proceed within a fixed fiscal framework and upon five established principles. The word historical is over-used, but it happens that the principles informing this agreement are precisely that, representing as they do the long-standing will and aspirations of native people going back generations.

The National Chief, Shawn Atleo, has characterized this agreement as “an enabling framework” – the beginning, rather than the culmination, of a discussion. “We now have a new approach,” he says, “based on the long-standing call by First Nations for First Nations control of First Nations education, respecting fully our rights and responsibilities, supported by the necessary funding to close the gap and support success for our students. This is first and foremost about our children.” As the native population within Canada soars, and as the measurables pertaining to Aboriginal quality of life stagnate, it has become more and more urgent to – as the proposal for a First Nations Education Act was titled – work together for First nations students. This agreement, and the federal budget framework into which it is embedded, is an opportunity to do just that – whatever one’s skepticism and mistrust may recommend to the contrary.

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