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Hill Dispatches: A practical and creative blueprint for First Nations schooling

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When First Nations issues briefly grabbed national attention with the housing crisis in Attawapiskat late last year, and then with the First Nations-Crown meeting earlier this year, many seasoned media talking heads couldn't help but cluck their tongues and say they'd seen it all before.

"Every few years or so something like Attawapiskat gets our attention. We all feel terrible. Then it fades away and we forget about it," many of them said.

The general view seemed to be that the problems of aboriginal Canada are just too depressingly intractable -- and too far out of sight and out of mind -- for them to occupy our collective attention for too long.

As though to confirm that view, when a major report on First Nation education came out last week, it generated more shrugs and near indifference than excitement or even serious interest.

The general reaction seemed to be, "We've heard it all before. Nothing new here," even from opposition members of parliament.

A roadmap the government should not ignore

Indeed, much of what this new report -- "Nurturing the Learning Spirit of First Nations: the Report of the National Panel on First Nation Elementary Education" -- says does echo what others, especially the former Auditor General, have said about inadequate funding, based on a ridiculous contribution agreement system, and the generally sad results of schooling for Canada's burgeoning, young First Nations population.

But this new report is more than another depressing litany of historic wrongs. It provides a fairly detailed roadmap for positive change.

In Canada we are still suffering the hangover from what the report identifies as a false notion -- the idea that education, as the majority of Canadians understand it, is inherently inimical to First Nations culture and traditions.

It may be the 21st century, but  we have not  entirely gotten over the colonial-era assumptions that created the discredited Indian residential school system. Chief among those assumptions was that "Indians" could not remain "Indians" if they were to be educated in the "modern way."

The report tackles this issue, historically and in its contemporary incarnation, head on.

"When a general worldview is not reflected in classroom experience, its relevance and even its truth its validity is doubted," the report states, and adds:

"When there is a gulf between explanations received in the education system and the daily learning from parents, grandparents and elders, a sense of confusion is formed and neither cultural outlook is trusted or valued."

When the report applies this observation to schools, it does so this way:

"Education systems that do not reflect any society's deepest sense of how we arrived at knowledge can be like education systems that fail to incorporate the language of students and their society. Both conditions act to discredit children's knowledge and create a hierarchy of learning that causes students to doubt their native intelligence and home-based knowledge."

The actual experience of First Nations children

Front and centre in this report's recommendations is that education for First Nations children and youth should take, as its starting point, the experience of those young people and the communities of which they are part.

The report states, in essence, that there is no necessary contradiction between, on the one hand, providing educational opportunities that will equip First Nations people with a full range of options in life and, on the other, respecting aboriginal cultures, traditions and worldviews.

And so, the report's first recommendation is that "First Nation children are entitled to effective and culturally-sensitive education."

To achieve this, the report advocates that the government must get beyond the ad hoc and paternalistic "contribution agreement" system -- a system that Auditor General Sheila Fraser demolished with such precision.

In place of the current system, Parliament should enact a First Nation Education Act.

Senior Canadian government officials, including the Deputy Minister of Aboriginal Affairs, have publicly recognized that services to First Nations communities must have a "statutory basis." In other words, their funding, governance and objectives must be defined and guaranteed by legislation.

Last week's report provides a pretty good blueprint for such legislation, as far as education is concerned.

Principles and nitty-gritty issues

The First Nations Education Act would cover the rights of First Nations children (including the right to their cultural language and identity); the objectives of the First Nations education system; the roles and responsibilities of all "partners" in the system, including band governments, provincial and territorial governments and the federal government; and -- of central importance -- it would provide for "funding that is needs-based, predictable and sustainable."

The Act would also deal with nitty-gritty matters such as teacher employment and standards, student testing and assessment, curriculum and "accountabilities."

Beyond this new legislated foundation the report envisions specific institutional reforms.

It recommends the creation of a National Commission for First Nation Education that would "replace the responsibilities, other than funding, of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs."

Creation of such a Commission would be "historic," the report notes, "in that a significant responsibility will be transferred from a Government of Canada department to a co-created National Commission."

Economies of scale

Over and above this national First Nations body, the report recommends that regional First Nations Education Organizations be created. These would be key in moving beyond the current system whereby each individual First Nations band has a bilateral funding arrangement with the federal government.

In suggesting both the National Commission and the regional bodies, the report has incorporated some of the lessons learned from existing larger-scale aboriginal educational governance bodies, such as that in the James Bay treaty area of Quebec or in the Northwest Territories.

As the report puts it:

"In many cases, First Nations schools will be better served through new governance models in which a number of smaller schools amalgamate under common management. This approach will increase management effectiveness and efficiency."

As for the crucial issue of funding, the report states that it must be more than merely adequate, and that it has to more than "catch up" with funding for the schools that serve the general Canadian population.

"First Nations education reform must be based on strong, positive education outcomes, not on an average cost per student approach," the report argues.

And it goes on to say:

"First Nations learners deserve to be educated in a system that will generate the same, or even better, education outcomes as achieved by students in the provincial systems. Given the magnitude of the barriers faced by First Nations learners, the level of resources and investment required per student will be substantially greater than the average level of expenditures provided in the public school system."

Time to get beyond rhetoric and symbolic gestures

Make no mistake about it -- this is, in many ways, a revolutionary report. If its recommendations were implemented, it would be a start down the road toward a  kind of aboriginal self-government, on a Canada-wide scale.

Over the years since Jean Chrétien's failed "White Paper" (which would have abolished "Indian status" altogether) and through the many protracted and fruitless constitutional, self-government and land-claims negotiations, the idea that Canada could engage with the First Nations on a people-to-people basis -- in any kind of tangible and practical way -- has existed only as an artifact of rhetoric.

This most recent very well-argued report on First Nations education shows the way to turn that rhetoric into reality.

Contrite apologies and solemn ceremonies such as we saw in Ottawa last month have their place and their purpose. But the thousands of children coming of age in First Nations communities throughout Canada deserve more than symbolic gestures.

Now, the government has a solid piece of work to guide First Nations education reforms.

This report is, at one and the same time, an act of creative imagination and of pragmatic reasoning.

In a real sense, its authors have thrown the gauntlet at this government's feet.

Will the government pick up that gauntlet and act?

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