Onkwehonwe First Nations Education Straight Talk


THE BLUE DOT MEME alludes to the February 7 Kainai High School ceremony which marked the education agreement-in-principle between Prime Minister Stephen Harper and National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Shawn Atleo. As people came through a door, they were given a sticker to wear – either blue (not invited guest) or yellow (invited). The not-invited were seated in a separate room, where they watched the ceremony on a monitor.

In at least one instance, and there may well have been others, a not-invited guest was removed from the blue-sticker room for reasons that are, to me, unclear. One report I’ve read is that the ejection had something to do with a protest tweet. I’m not sure that the precise reason for the ejection makes any material difference: the point is that a blue dot worn on the chest has now come to represent the people who are not consulted, who are not wanted, who are viewed by the government as troublemakers, and who are the first to be arrested or harassed or placed under surveillance. Think of it as good Indians and bad Indians. It’s good to be a bad Indian.

It’s a powerful message, grounded in historical and contemporary reality. Who can doubt that the Harper government has worked out its list of the good and bad Indians. Christie Belcourt has been Photoshopping blue dots to historical photos of well-known Indian trouble makers. As the oil sands industry grows, and as the federal government pushes ahead with legislation that is guaranteed to affect aboriginal lands, rights and title, Ottawa will need more blue dot sticker machines to keep up with the resistance.

Two weeks ago I wrote an article some have perceived – I would say misperceived – as an endorsement of the First Nations Education Act. The National Post titled my article “The beginning of a new approach to First Nations education.” My submitted title was “Give First Nations Control of First Nations Education” a chance. There’s a big difference. How so, you may ask? Well, there is no “First Nations Education Act” any longer, not since the draft legislation was universally rejected by First Nations. Instead, the parties agreed to a set of principles which would inform any future agreement. I list them in my article, but here they are again for ease of reference:

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 think these are good principles, and so do many Nish with whom I’ve talked education. (Nish is Anishinaabe slang for Indians.)

The National Post headline can’t be true, because there’s no evidence one way or another to support the notion of a new approach. We won’t have evidence until we’ve undertaken the journey. Let’s be clear about this: I don’t trust the Harper government to do the right thing. I don’t believe a country with 150+ years of assimilationist and exterminationist and penny-pinching micromanagerial arrogance is suddenly going to take a 180-degree turn. I do believe in the strength and wisdom of First Nations cultures and people, and I believe that political pressure can reap tactical gains. When we clear our minds and reach a consensus and draw on the resources of the collective, good things can happen. Wait: that’s not a belief, it’s a fact.

If you read my article you should notice it breaks into two halves. One-half is a criticism of the federal government, and the other half is a criticism of aboriginal people. I think we too easily surrender to mistrust and division and self-doubt and negativity. Failure is a partnership, and success will be too. I am well aware that blaming First Nations people for all the negative conditions of our communities (and it’s not all negative) is unfair. But let me ask you Onkwehonwe folks something: do you believe that you are a passive victim in this life? Do you believe that only the Great White Father in Ottawa can make you and your people well and whole? I doubt it: I can hear you laughing at that idea from here.

We like to talk about how proud and strong we are. So why do we get all scared when our own people try to negotiate something, like we’ve been doing forever? The answer, above all others, is residential school. Our ancestors negotiated skills sharing in the treaties, not assimilation and abuse. Here’s what I hope you will consider: passionate, bright and principled Onkwehonwe have been working on this issue of First Nations control of First Nations education. It’s not 1860 anymore. We know the English language, and we know what the government is up to. We’re on to them.

Some of you are saying that the people negotiating with the government are government Indians, selling out our people for beads and trinkets. That does happen. But I don’t think it’s true at all in this case. I know some of the people who are trying to make a difference. They know their culture, and they care about their roots. They don’t trust the government any more than you and I do (what Indian does?) – but they trust us, the people. Trust is a big deal, and we’re going to have to work on that amongst ourselves. Or, you know, just keep pulling each other down.

At the Kainai ceremony, the host Chief Charles Weaselhead said, “We [the Blood Tribe] in no way endorse the proposed legislation in its present form. However, we are open to continued dialogue.” Dialogue means you have your terms and you open your mind to possibility. You compromise where it is possible and necessary, but you have your non-negotiables. If the discussion at any point veers in a direction you can’t accept, you have the courage and strength and ability to say, No. By you I mean just that: you, the reader. You, the Onkwehonwe people.

Everyone agrees that the arrangement we have right now is unacceptable. I was in a First Nations education meeting with twenty or-so people, including National Chief Atleo. Ovide Mercredi, a former AFN National Chief, summarized the issue perfectly: “First Nations jurisdiction of education has to be a basic principle. The right to decide the curriculum. The right to run the schools, all these things. What was transferred to First Nations was an inadequate education system with inadequate resources.”

I agree with the criticisms of the ceremony. The government should have opened it to the whole community, and the community should have been part of the discussion. Sorry to say, but the sticker fiasco sounds like something a white person would think up. If this was a Kainai idea, then that Indian needs to go back to Indian school. That’s not how it’s done in Indian Country. There’s protocol. There’s respect. You go to the people before you do anything, and you talk. Stephen (honorary bloody chief) Harper has to learn this, and until he does it’s proper and correct to slam him for being ignorant and rude.

Let’s walk through the criticisms, one by one.

Canada is going to impose provincial standards and curriculum on us. We won’t be able to teach our language and our culture in our own ways.

That’s true, and it’s not true. The true part is that we already have this standards and curriculum problem right now, with the existing (unacceptable) system. Our First Nations youth leave the community and go to mainstream colleges and universities to get their teaching credentials. Then they come back and teach their people about the ancient Greeks and Romans. The not true part is that we won’t be able to teach our language and culture. Are you serious? Who is going to stop us? Already our gifted teachers are deciding they’ll develop their own curriculum, based in the culture and history and reality of the people. You obviously don’t know the strong native teachers that I do: they’ll eat you for breakfast if you tell them “You can’t do that.”

(P.S. I studied the ancient Greeks and Romans and it was pretty interesting stuff, so I have a bit of an issue with getting rid of the curriculum entirely. Oh well.)

The new legislation will impose standards of transparency and accountability and will impose third-party governance on communities that don’t follow Ottawa’s rules.

I, like many of you, used to hear alarms when the feds used phrases like the accountability of First Nations. Then I realized this was an ass covering gesture to help assure non-native people that Ottawa is carefully watching the dollars. They have to use this language, or it’s out to the curb for the Prime Minister. And while I’m on the topic, I may as well add that for the same reason there needs to be a piece of Ottawa legislation. Even if we do get meaningful jurisdiction and control – and we should settle for nothing less – the feds are going to have to pass a bill in Parliament eventually, because that’s their protocol.

Now, this third-party matter. It could be used as a tool to punish renegade communities. We have to be vigilant about that sort of thing. But bands overwhelmingly get into trouble because they are indeed in trouble. Maybe they don’t have the tools they need, or some sort of disaster has upset their finances. The goal should be to get back on financial track. There may well be good alternatives to co- and third-party management. If so, I’m open to that. But I think the risk of politically motivated third-party management is way overstated. Our focus in any case as First Nations should be on making sure we don’t get into trouble in the first place.

The AFN National Chief didn’t consult me and does not speak for me anyways.

This is a post unto itself. There are so many things to say about it. I’ll keep it simple.

I’ve no doubt that the National Chief did not talk individually to every single First Nations person or community. Part of the problem here is defining consultation. What does it mean? Maybe he failed or fell short in this area. In fact, given the size of this continent, he probably did. But it’s not like the guy sits in an office 24/7. He is always talking to First Nations people. I know I sound like an AFN plant (and how weird is that). I’m just saying, be real. I’d also be curious to know what you think you have to tell him that he hasn’t heard a billion times already. “Honour the treaties”? “Respect our ways”? “Think seven generations ahead”? It’s not like the guy just got here from Norway.

The Assembly of First Nations in fact doesn’t speak for all aboriginal people. For obvious reasons the Inuit and Métis are not represented by the Assembly of First Nations (duh). Non-status First Nations people are also not included. Then there are the traditional and hereditary governments, also not part of the AFN system. This includes my own traditional, Haudenosaunee longhouse council. The Assembly of First Nations is a government-funded entity which draws its membership from the chief-and-council system created, and imposed upon First Nations, by Canada. It’s in many ways a creature of the feds.

I’ve talked to National Chief Shawn Atleo about all of this, because I was genuinely interested to hear what he had to say. He’s a very thoughtful and principled fellow, in my candid view, and it’s quite clear to me he understands the complexities and contradictions of his AFN role. He comes from a place where  traditional leadership is strong. He respects tradition. He’s not trying to speak for everyone, or to stop any community from following their traditional ways. That’s why I respect, and even like, him. (You should also know that agreeing with the AFN is not something I tend to do.) He gets that for some of us the Assembly of First Nations is bullshit – and you can say it to his face and he’ll still eat a steak with you and have a really thoughtful conversation. That’s the kind of guy he is.

So my polite suggestion is to ease off a bit. If your position is that the AFN doesn’t speak for you, then go ahead and do your own thing. The AFN is an option, and we’re free to say “Thanks, but no thanks.” The Haudenosaunee do just that. But – and this is important – just as the AFN does not speak for the Haudenosaunee, the Haudenosaunee do not speak for everyone else. If Chief Atleo can get a better deal for the people who want it, he should be given an opportunity to do so. We all need to make our own opportunities.

The point of this whole discussion, as I see it, is to come up with your solutions and do something about it. Don’t just sit around waiting for the arrival of the next [government bill/AFN paper/Indian Act revision/Harper speech] to get all worked up about. Yes, the government is infuriating, but if you give them all your attention and energy nothing is ever going to happen on the ground. You know that. I love angry Indians because their anger tells me they’re alive. They’ve got fire in them. They haven’t been crushed. The problem is that sometimes anger is all we have. And we wrap it up in mistrust of one another. I look at this discussion and I see a lot of gifted native people running into the resistance of a lot of other gifted native people. We’re really good at being against things and against one another. But what about being for? What are we going to do with that?

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