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Toward an education act that makes the grade

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I remember the first time I had to have an honest conversation with a parent about why their child was doing so poorly in school. If they only knew that, as a former teacher and administrator, I was the one who felt like the failure.

After all, it wasn't the child's fault his class was terribly overcrowded, there were few to no books in the library, there were few course options available, or he only had a 30 per cent chance of graduating high school.

Having to tell a parent their child is not getting the education they deserve is a tough thing to do. Especially since we all want the same things for our children -- to see them thrive, be challenged, have dreams and prosper.

Yet for First Nations parents living on-reserve, it's a reality their children will not have the same opportunities as other children across the country.

By way of background, education in Canada is the purview of the provinces, except on-reserve where it is a federal responsibility. For decades, First Nations leaders have fought to gain a semblance of control over the federal system their children were a part of. However, it wasn't until the mid-1990s many reserves were finally successful in wresting control and building their own institutions.

In Opaskwayak, my home community near The Pas, the process first began when we created a kindergarten in the basement of a former old folks' home. Year after year, we acquired more space, more teachers and more students. Finally, our kids were learning Cree, English, math and science from Cree teachers as part of the Opaskwayak Educational Authority.

More commonly known, off-reserve, as a school division, today's OEA provides a well-balanced, quality K-12 education in both of its schools, Joe A. Ross and Oscar Lathlin Collegiate. It is just one beacon of hope for Canadians looking to repair a system that was first promised by the Crown when, in 1871's Treaty 1, Her Majesty agreed to "maintain a school on each reserve hereby made whenever the Indians of the reserve should desire it."

What does this "treaty right" mean in 2013? A combination of underfunding and lack of laws governing education on-reserve has created a stalemate of accusations with the federal government pointing the finger at First Nations educators saying, "You must be accountable" and First Nations educators pointing the finger at government saying, "We are in a crisis and we can't do anything without more funding."

How we react to the proposed First Nations Education Act will determine if this stare-down continues or if we end up creating a system that finally restores hope and provides equal opportunities for future generations.

The draft legislation has some positives and negatives.

On the pro side, it would allow First Nations education authorities to amalgamate into one school board or ministry in Manitoba. Not only is this long overdue, it is a move that would allow both thriving and struggling First Nations schools to finally work together.

Another plus is the language of the draft legislation recognizes the importance of culture and language in First Nations communities and the vital role these play in a successful on-reserve school system. Retaining and fostering cultural growth cannot be underestimated.

The implementation of proposed minimum standards for teaching days, teacher certification and assessment will be problematic to many, but if First Nations are directing these standards, which we must not forget can include language proficiency in Cree, Ojibwa, Dakota or Dene, then this will help ensure First Nations students can prosper in settings outside of their respective communities.

In the cons column, the idea of having a provincial superintendent or consultant inspecting schools harkens back to Indian Act language and will find very few supporters.

If you can imagine, I have seen federally funded school evaluations where the evaluator has cut and pasted the school name into a previously re-written document and even missed a few cut and pastes. Oops.

The major deficiency of the draft legislation is it comes with no financial guarantees. Schools on-reserve in Canada are underfunded. Period. There must be a paragraph that ensures First Nations schools will be funded at levels equitable to comparable provincial schools. If legislation is about sticks and carrots, then this is the carrot that matters.

There is an old expression among educators that "students don't fail, schools fail," which is why both sides need to negotiate on this issue. That is what the original treaty partners envisioned and what young First Nations students across Canada deserve. It's time everyone worked toward at least a passing grade.


James Wilson is commissioner of the Treaty Relations Commission of Manitoba, a neutral body mandated to encourage discussion, facilitate public understanding, and enhance mutual respect between all peoples in Manitoba.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 31, 2013 0

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