Waubageshig is a member of the Georgina Island First Nation in Ontario and has worked for the Cree School Board in northern Quebec, the Mi'kmaq Education Authority in Nova Scotia and Aboriginal and Northern Development Canada in Ottawa. He also helped to found the first Indigenous Studies department at Trent University, Peterborough.
The much-applauded appointment of Carolyn Bennett as the Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's inaugural cabinet opened real possibilities for significant progress on education.
During the campaign, the Liberals committed almost $2-billion of new money over a four-year period for First Nations education. Parents and educators alike have been eagerly awaiting details about potential new education dollars as well as Ms. Bennett's responses to the many challenges afflicting First Nations education across the country.
Initially, she would be well-advised to stay the course the previous government set when it undertook the structural reform of education. Although Bill C-33 – which the Conservatives introduced (and eventually mothballed) – was flawed, and resulted in the resignation of the Assembly of First Nations' national chief who supported it, the bill acknowledged what numerous First Nations educators have known for some time: Improving education outcomes for indigenous youth depends on creating regional school boards.
It's time to stop sending education dollars directly to individual bands to operate local schools, if for no other reason than their inability, due to scale, to achieve a level of excellence. Establishing regional school boards accountable to the communities they serve that are staffed by qualified education professionals will introduce a level of accountability and professionalism lacking today in the administrative and pedagogical operations of the small community schools across the country.
To that end, the ministry should immediately embark on a national campaign to encourage First Nations communities to create regional boards. It may be necessary for the Minister and her officials – preferably in consultation with First Nations' leaders and educators – to identify a range of incentives that could be offered by new boards. This might include the capacity and money for language and cultural-program development, the development of innovative elementary/secondary curriculums, pedagogical research to shore up the woefully inadequate training that new teachers to First Nations receive, and the implementation of pre-kindergarten and kindergarten programs. Offering some or all of these as incentives to communities to aggregate their education operations will greatly help the process.
Because the federal government historically transferred education dollars directly to chiefs and councils, many local leaders will resist the "loss" of these dollars, as well as the loss of control over local education. However, the reality is that only a handful of the more than 600 chiefs and councils have ever played any meaningful role in local education. Chief and council primacy in managing local education has been more a myth than reality, and putting the responsibility for enlightened and progressive teaching and administrative reforms that are so desperately needed in local schools in the hands of school board professionals is long overdue. The 10 Cree communities of James Bay in Northern Quebec and the Nisga'a in the Nass Valley in central British Columbia have operated community-governed school boards for several decades and their examples unequivocally demonstrate that chiefs and councils are neither central nor necessary to local school operations.
Second, Ms. Bennett should deal directly and quickly with the chronic underfunding of First Nations education. Salaries for teachers, principals and support staff in First Nations schools fall considerably short of their provincial peers. When the regional boards are established, steps (including legislation) should be taken to bring salaries in line with the provincial salary grids.
Third, the Minister and the new government should be encouraged to take a long view on First Nations education by engaging leaders, parents and educators to weigh in on the merits of removing the education responsibility from Indigenous and Northern Affairs and transferring it to an entity created by Parliament for the purpose of regulating and supervising First Nations education nationally. During the past 40 years, the department has never had a ministry of education capacity or function. As a result, First Nations education has drifted continuously, buffeted by the ministry's desire to bring education in line with provincial standards and achievement levels on the one hand, but swamped by the pedagogical and education vacuum in the department on the other.
A national First Nations entity governed by a council of First Nations educators, parents and leaders, and with clearly defined powers set out in legislation, would not only provide a much-needed focus for the regional school boards as they come on stream, it would also have a critical role to play in the development of appropriate provincial responses to the increasing presence of First Nations youth in provincial schools. More than half of the country's First Nations elementary and secondary student population currently attends provincial schools.
The new government ran a successful campaign highlighting change. Clearly, essential changes to the delivery of First Nations education are fundamental to improving education outcomes. No less an authority than the Truth and Reconciliation Commission made similar recommendations. Several months into her new role, Ms. Bennett should soon be signalling the directions she and her officials will be taking on this crucial file. The time for meaningful change for First Nations education is upon us.