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Indigenous Nationhood

Pamela Palmater's picture
Dr. Pamela D. Palmater is a Mi'kmaw lawyer and member of the Eel River Bar First Nation in New Brunswick. She teaches Indigenous law, politics and governance at Ryerson University and heads their Centre for Indigenous Governance.

Defer, Deflect, Deny, Destroy: Harper's First Nation Education Act

| October 10, 2013
First Nations Office, Attawapiskat Nation

Since the federal government first assumed control over First Nation education, First Nations have suffered poor educational outcomes. During the residential school era, federal control over First Nation education meant a very real chance of starvation, torture, abuse, medical experimentation, beatings and death for the students. Upwards of 40 per cent of the children who entered residential schools never made it out alive and others were permanently scarred.

Prime Minister Harper apologized for the residential school apology, but has not taken a single step to address the disastrous results which stemmed from it like lost culture, language, identity, traditional Indigenous knowledges, belief systems, values, customs and practices. No sooner was the weak apology offered when Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre condemned it as a waste of money. The Harper government soon followed the apology by cutting funding to Indigenous languages which confirmed the lack of sincerity in the apology.

All Apologies

Even a child knows that an apology is more than words; it requires an acknowledgement of the harm done, acceptance of responsibility for that harm, a promise not to do it again and actions to try to make amends for the harm done. Harper has not offered a true apology nor taken real actions to address the significant harms done. A litigation settlement for personal injuries, rapes and molestations that happened in those schools does not address the assimilatory harms. 

If Harper was sincere about the wrongfulness of Canada's long-standing assimilation policy, it would not continue to have assimilation as its number one policy objective with regards to First Nations. If there was a true interest in righting wrongs in First Nation education, Harper need only read the many reports, publications, studies and statistics in relation to First Nation education which have clearly outlined the problems and the solutions. Yet, Harper has implemented his standard modus operandi in relation to First Nations issues: deny, deflect, defer and destroy.

Evidence Contradicts Official Position

Even when faced with contrary evidence, Harper's government has consistently denied that there is a problem with funding or federal control over First Nation education. Instead they issue press releases and make public statements about how much they fund First Nation education and focus on isolated First Nations which have recently built schools. The Office of the Correctional Investigator, The Auditor General, Special Ministerial Representatives, United Nations investigators and numerous experts have raised the alarm on the serious nature of federal control over First Nation education. Some of the conclusions include the following:

- Indian Affairs has failed to implement recommendations "most important to lives and well-being of First Nations" (Auditor General 2011);

- 73 per cent of all water, 65 per cent waste water systems in FNs are high risk - INAC so behind in infrastructure funding, will take $4.7 billion just to fix current systems (Neegan 2011);

- The "inequitable and differential outcomes for Aboriginal offenders" are the direct result of "federal correctional policies and practices" (Correctional Investigator 2010);

- Current funding practices "do not lead to equitable funding among Aboriginal and First Nation communities" (OAG 2008);

- Funding inequities results in inability for First Nations to provide adequate child welfare services (Auditor General 2008);

- Unequal access to services for First Nations represent "contributing factors to the over-representation of Aboriginal children in child welfare system" (INAC 2004);

- Funding formula created by INAC does not ensure equitable access to education & gap widening (Auditor General 2004);

- INAC failed to give Parliament real picture on FN housing -- said increased housing stock overall, but found an actual decline of 30 per cent (Auditor General 2003).

When the evidence is too overwhelming and the media will not let the issue drop, then the Harper Conservatives deflect responsibility and try to either change the subject or shift the blame to First Nations themselves by making allegations against First Nation leaders as corrupt or mismanaging funds. This pattern has been too consistent and one need only look at the housing crisis in Attawapiskat, the corresponding allegation of mismanagement and the court case which cleared Chief Spence's name to see this m.o. in action.

Deferral is Not a River in Egypt

Sometimes, like in the case of First Nation education, the public criticism is so intense that deflection will not work and then Harper usually defers the issue to be studied. In the case of First Nation education, many successive federal governments have followed the same pattern of deferring the issue to study and the result is numerous studies. The problem for Harper is that all these studies continue to say the exact same thing: the problem is federal control and chronic underfunding of First Nation education. It should be no surprise that the studies were nearly unanimous in their solutions for poor First Nation education outcomes: First Nation control and appropriate funding. It's not rocket science Harper.

When faced with an issue that simply won't go away, and the usual deny, deflect and defer tactics won't work; Harper usually reverts back to federal policy objective of assimilating Indians: destroying the "problem" all together. In an aggressive full blitz attack, Harper has introduced a complex legislative agenda which will have essentially the same effect as the White Paper 1969 would have: destroy Indians, reserves, treaties and any programs and services associated with them. With regards to education, Harper will introduce the First Nation Education Act, national legislation designed to trick First Nations into voluntarily giving up their treaty right to education in exchange for a federally-controlled legislative program.

What are the implications of this legislation? The draft legislation has not yet been shared with the public, so I can't comment on the specifics, but based on INAC's Blueprint for Legislation document shared with First Nations, one can clearly see that First Nation concerns were valid:

(1) Indian agent-type federal controls, inspections and approvals will be tight;

(2) The potential option of local First Nation control is limited and conditional;

(3) There will be no guaranteed funding as funding will still be policy-based; and

(4) Although promoted as optional legislation, the legislation proposes to set out a process for legal recognition and authorization to run schools.

One need only look at the current suite of legislation to see where this legislation is headed.

Failure to Consult First Nations

Other serious concerns related to this legislation include the fact that there were no consultations which respect Canada's legal obligation to obtain the free, informed and prior consent of First Nations required under section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982 and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). Instead, engagement sessions were held in urban areas across the country and largely skipped the 615+ First Nation communities. This legislation is paternalistic, unilaterally drafted and meant to be a one-size fits all approach to deflecting the real issue: federal control and chronic under-funding. The majority of First Nations did NOT ask for legislation and in fact passed numerous resolutions at the national, regional and provincial levels specifically opposing this legislation.

One cannot forget that for many First Nations, First Nation education is a treaty right and those treaties are protected in both domestic and international law. Treaties are forever and are now protected in section 35 and cannot be unilaterally amended. This, together with the fact that this legislation also proposes to offload (at least in part) First Nation education to the provinces makes this legislation unconstitutional. Canada is forgetting that when it supported UNDRIP, that article 14 states that First Nations have a right to establish and control their own education systems and Canada has an obligation to ensure that First Nation children have access.

The failure to address First Nation education outcomes doesn't even make economic sense. The 2 per cent cap placed on funding has only made a bad situation worse. Yet, the studies show that were Canada to eliminate the gap between Canadian and First Nation education outcomes, this would yield $179 billion on GDP back to Canada. Why then would Canada continue to pay $100,000 a year to wrongfully imprison First Nations peoples, when a 4 year university education only costs $60,000 and we know the social and economic benefits of a good education? Canadians enjoy good education systems funded in large part from the wealth obtained from Indigenous lands and resources. It's time to share the wealth as envisioned in the treaties.

Every time Canada comes up with an idea on how to "fix" the "Indian problem" our people are oppressed, assimilated or lose our lives. Canada has failed miserably in their First Nation education policies. It's long past time to step aside and allow First Nations peoples to heal from the inter-generational devastation caused by federal controls and fully support First Nation-controlled education systems. The treaties promised to fund these systems so that First Nations would prosper equally with our treaty partners. It's time the treaties were honoured and all parties to the treaties enjoyed the benefits.

Forget more paternalistic federal legislation and honour the treaties.

Image: wikipedia commons




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