Thursday, July 31, 2014
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Fight to retain education, control First Nations told

By Janet French, The StarPhoenix

Impending federal legislation for First Nations education is a colonialist attempt to shift First Nations schools under provincial control, some experts fear.

A First Nations education conference in Saskatoon heard from speakers this week worried about the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act, which is now in a final drafting stage.

Alberta-based lawyer and author Sharon Venne called the proposal “racism of the highest degree.”

“They keep imposing their agenda on our people. It’s the same thing. There’s no freedom to make decisions. Everything is in their control. What’s the difference between the residential schools and now?”

An agreement between the Canadian government and the Assembly of First Nations, unveiled earlier this month, says the legislation will establish “minimum standards” for First Nations-run schools. Teachers must be certified, diplomas recognizable by post-secondary institutions and employers, and the curriculum must meet provincial standards.

The agreement includes new accountability measures for First Nation education administrators and will allow bands to establish “authorities” that would act like school boards.

Venne takes umbrage with the government assertion there are no “standards” in First Nations schools.

“It’s not recognized by the colonizers, so the colonizers say we don’t have standards. That because they’re not standards that are written in their way of thinking.”

Venne points to a similar agreement already in place with First Nations schools in British Columbia since 2006. Some First Nations schools now under the control of public school boards are running a deficit and lose out to town schools on repair funds, she said.

Venne was part of a group that filed an urgent action to the United Nations earlier this month opposing such legislation nationwide.

She implored people attending the Western Canada First Nations Education Administrators Conference Wednesday to fight for First Nations’ right to run on-reserve education. To fail to do so is to risk First Nations’ identity and land rights, she argued.

Onion Lake Cree Nation Chief Wallace Fox also sees the agreement as a slippery slope to provinces running First Nations schools. He doesn’t like the idea of his reserve losing the ability to design its own curriculum and language programs. If a First Nation refuses to sign the agreement, he fears the government will withhold school funding.

“That day has come and gone when they decide what’s good for the good little Indians,” he said.

A Manitoba organization, meanwhile, has been working with 18 First Nations schools in that province to tailor the provincial curriculum to each community’s needs.

Katherine Whitecloud, superintendent of education for the Manitoba First Nations Education Resource Centre, says her organization has been working with First Nations for about 2 1/2 years taking similar steps to the proposed legislation.

“This model addresses all of those points that are being raised. We’re not concerned about it. This is actually giving life to a treaty right to education,” Whitecloud said.

Working with parents, grandparents, elders and leaders in each First Nation, resource centre consultants have helped draft proposals that have dramatically increased the federal funds reserve schools receive.

At the K-8 Ginew school, run by the Roseau River band in Manitoba, students were two to three years behind in their schooling, educational representative Howard Nelson said. Books were outdated and kids didn’t have access to technology.

With help from the MFNERC, funding per student jumped to $14,000 each from $7,200. Teachers’ morale is better, as they’re now paid the same as their public school colleagues, and the students have smartboards in classrooms and a computer lab, Nelson said.

“The kids are more respectful. They’re learning their language,” he said.

Given Ginew school’s success, Nelson doesn’t have any qualms about using provincial standards in First Nations schools.

“You have to live in both worlds,” he said.

He does question what “equitable” funding would mean for First Nations schools, and wonders if the federal government is backing away from its responsibility for First Nations education.

In the agreement, the federal government promises to increase funding for language and culture, to invest $500 million in school infrastructure over seven years, and to make school funding more straightforward and predictable.

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