London Community News
By Craig Gilbert
Standing at the back of the hall silently protesting federal control over the education of First Nations children, Carolyn Henry was pleasantly surprised with the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs approached her.
“I wanted the opportunity to say what I felt and I got that opportunity,” she said afterward. “It shows he’s willing to go head-to-head and we need that. We need a dialogue.”
Henry was one of a handful of Chippewa of the Thames First Nation (COTT) members who held signs protesting the new First Nations Education Act (FNEA) at a land claim settlement ceremony Monday (Dec. 9).
Minister of Aboriginal Affairs Bernard Valcourt spoke to the demonstrators as he walked out of the community centre where the ceremony took place. As he approached Henry, the essence of the First Nations education debate crackled between them.
It’s about the definition of “we.”
“We need control over our own education,” Henry said to Valcourt as he approached, referring to the First Nations.
“We are going to get there,” Valcourt agreed, pointing to Henry’s sign then gesturing in a circle.
It went back and forth like that a couple of times with Valcourt and Henry close enough to touch but miles away from agreeing.
“He’s still trying to enforce federal control by saying ‘we,’” Henry said after the minister left. “That’s why I countered with ‘we’ the First Nation. He said the system can be reformed, but we need equal funding.”
Henry and Crystal Kechego are currently completing Masters degrees in education, and fellow demonstrator Starr McGahey-Albert already has hers.
They said First Nations have the capacity to create their own curriculum, but they need per-student funding equal to that received by off-reserve schools.
Henry said the FNEA is just another example of the Harper Conservatives’ unwillingness to consult with them before imposing another set of paternalistic rules.
One sign read: FNEA is the 2014 version of Residential Schools.
“This is the first time they have been here since they announced the new FNEA so they didn’t consult us at all,” Kechego said. “The federal government is trying to move forward with its own reform that it controls. Why are we continuing with federal and provincial standards when it’s not working?”
Officially, Valcourt was there to sign an agreement with COTT Chief Joe Miskokomon resolving an almost 200-year-old land dispute around the Big Bear Creek settlement.
The claim stems back to the sale of Chippewa reserve lands near Florence, Ont. by the British government of Upper Canada in the 1830s. Those lands were to be set aside for the Chippewa Nation’s exclusive use according to the terms negotiated in the Longwoods Treaty between 1818 and 1822.
The contract awards the First Nation almost $120 million in compensation and the option to purchase as much as 5,120 acres of land from a willing buyer and have it added to the reserve through Canada’s Additions to Reserve (ATR) policy.
The COTT has divided up the compensation package and will allocate about $30 million to economic/community development, $10 million for education and post-secondary funding for members.
About $20 million cash will be split amongst each COTT band member who was living when the deal was approved by the COTT members March 23, 2012.
That’s about $7,500 for each person, which will be held in trust for children until they are 21 or 18 with a high school diploma.
Miskokomon himself said the day was not a time for celebration, but for moving forward.
“This is the start of a new direction for us as determined by us,” he said. “This is about closing the gap in education we all know is there and at the same time putting our language, traditions and culture back into the schools. The biggest problem we collective face is that Canada doesn’t know its own history and doesn’t know the story of our participation in the development of this country. It’s a story that needs to be told and we don’t think we have to sacrifice ourselves, our values and beliefs, in order to tell that story. We’re not trying to become brown white people. We want to be our own.”