Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 11/10/2017 (249 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
BROKENHEAD OJIBWAY NATION — Imagine your kids’ school library without books, their classrooms furnished with the same texts you and your parents used at their age.
Now picture a school with a new library stocked with books and materials from authors who reflect the experiences and history of your ancestors.
And laptops, tablets and school supplies, from binders to pencils, in the classrooms.
That’s the stark contrast Tanya Kent and about 100 other students at Sergeant Tommy Prince School had in mind when they issued a video invitation to Canada’s prime minister earlier this week.
"When I heard I was going to have an opportunity to write a speech in a video for the prime minister, I was really excited... I still am," said Tanya, 14, following a historic ceremony to mark the first Indigenous school division to be run by and for First Nations in Canada.
The Manitoba First Nations School System is the first Indigenous school division in Canada to operate outside the provincial public school system.
Trudeau sent a video in response to the invitation, saying he wouldn't be able to attend. Federal Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott was there, however, and joined Manitoba First Nations leaders in celebrating the milestone at the school on Brokenhead Ojibway Nation, an hour north of Winnipeg.
The event fulfilled a dream that Indigenous leaders initially envisioned nearly 50 years ago.
"It is truly a historic day to see the children and the enthusiasm, the pride in the future they have to look forward. We enjoyed beautiful music and song and traditional dancing and heard the stories of some of the elders and the difficult circumstances they grew up in. Now something they looked forward to has come to pass," Philpott said.
"We believe when First Nation schools are designed and managed by First Nations with a real honour given to traditional knowledge, students will be able to do anything."
Last December, Ottawa signed an agreement to end discriminatory rates of underfunding and to hand control for schools to First Nations jurisdiction.
Ten First Nations signed on, to start. The deal doubled or even tripled the level of funding from Ottawa for students, closing the gap with provincial levels of school funding for the first time. The average rates jumped from $8,000 to $18,000, per student, not quite eliminating the difference; the province, on average, pays more than $20,000 per student, according to First Nations-supplied information.
For example, Brokenhead used to receive $6,000 per student each year. Under the new deal, the amount jumped to $17,000.
"This milestone is reconciliation in action, that will help our students achieve their dreams," Brokenhead Chief Jim Bear said, welcoming about 100 guests to the event, including students from other schools in the new system, and Manitoba’s northern and southern Grand Chiefs Sheila North Wilson and Jerry Daniels.
As more students enrol, as high schools are built and as other First Nations participate, their strength in numbers should boost funding and allow the schools to be equals of Canada’s provincially run schools, he said.
"We have small numbers now and Brokenhead Ojibway Nation may need more reconciliation to strengthen its chances and of success," Bear said.
Better funding and local control goes a long way to improve academic standards and outcomes for First Nations students, school officials said.
"We’re able to provide resources for teachers to teach the curriculum and we’re able to increase the teachers' salaries to make them more comparable to what teachers make in the provincial system," said Nora Murdock, who is directing the system under its parent body, the Manitoba First Nations Educational Resource Centre.
As the superintendent for the new division, Murdock is now in charge of encouraging the 56 other schools on Manitoba First Nations to make similar transitions.
More schools are expected to sign on to the agreement, Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Arlen Dumas said.
Raising education funding on First Nations, which operate under federal jurisdiction, was an election promise Trudeau made two years ago.
"This is an innovative school system and a stepping stone to enhance education initiatives for First Nations in Manitoba. I would like to see all the First Nations benefit," Dumas said.
For students like Tanya, the improvements might not match the education she’d get in Winnipeg or Selkirk, but they come close.
"Now, we have laptops, tablets all the things a normal school should have," she said. "There’s a new library which we didn’t have last year. That’s pretty amazing... We were dusted under the rug for so long and we’re finally getting out there. It’s been awesome."
Alexandra believes every story has a life of its own with a heartbeat and body and legs. She’ll probe for a pulse and check out its shape from every which way, until she feels it and sees it. So be patient with her. She can be exasperating.