Debunking colonialism with Jennifer Keith

New First Nations Education Act a smokescreen

Jennifer Keith

At Prime Minister Harper’s recent announcement on the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act, he stated, “This is historic, and it is a great day for Canada, for First Nations communities, and for the next generation.” He was speaking of the long-overdue transfer of control of First Nations education from the Canadian government to First Nations. This was welcome news to First Nations who have long advocated for educational reform that stops the wheels of assimilation.

It is premature to start celebrating, however. Prime Minister Harper only outlined proposed changes to the First Nations Education Act. There is no new legislation yet, simply an agreement to proceed with the final drafting of the legislation.

First Nations have expressed significant concern that the Crown has not lived up to its duty to consult. The government has unilaterally made decisions with regards to First Nations education, but we do not know what the legislation actually says, and there has been no consultation. This appears to be a continuation of the paternalistic attitude that the federal government has when it comes to First Nations education.

But the proposed legislation will still transfer control of First Nations education to the First Nations people, right? Well, Harper’s website does state that, “The legislation will ensure First Nations control of First Nations education,” but this is the only indication of any transfer of control. Beyond that, the remainder of the explained changes describe “minimum education standards, consistent with provincial standards off-reserve [ . . . ] curriculum that meets or exceeds provincial standards, that students meet minimum attendance requirements, that teachers are properly certified, and that First Nation schools award widely recognized diplomas or certificates.”

Again, we see paternalistic treatment that disregards First Nations’ inherent right to self-governance, which arguably should include the right to control education and assimilative policies that impose provincial curriculums. The proposed changes, if passed, will legislatively entrench the federal government in First Nations education. The only measure of control First Nations appear to gain is the “establishment of First Nations Education Authorities” who will be tasked with ensuring the federally defined regulations are being met.

But at least there is a promise of monies, which must be in response to the “Funding Requirement for First Nations Schools in Canada” report prepared in 2009 by the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer. The office found existing First Nations schools needed $287-308 million per year in capital funds, plus another $110 million for their maintenance and operations. However, this figure did not include monies that are needed for new construction projects for reserves that have no school(s) and are therefore forced to bus children to nearby communities.

Unfortunately, the additional monies fall short of even the existing needs, as they only amount to roughly $417 million per year. These transfers are furthermore contingent upon the passing of the proposed legislation and the monies will not start flowing until 2015-2016, with the bulk of the funds set to be released in 2016 after the next federal election.

Upon closer inspection, what the new legislation really amounts to is a shallow promise of inadequate funding, under the condition of federal legislative control. There is no radical change.

It seems the wheels of assimilation are actually gaining traction as the government has found new ways to continue the practice of imposing their will on First Nations, disregarding Aboriginal and treaty rights, and controlling First Nations children, communities, and culture. These actions are the exact thing that Harper denounced in 2008, when he made the Statement of Apology to former students of Indian residential schools.

No, the greatness of the day does not lie with Canada, First Nations, or the future generation; it seems that the greatness Harper is celebrating is his ability to find new ways to continue the oppression of First Nations peoples.

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