Addressing Aboriginal Education in Canada

Sarah MacDonald

The federal government’s latest attempt to address aboriginal education, Bill C-33, or the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act, has been put on hold as of May. Having been met with strong opposition from a majority of Canada’s aboriginal population—and subsequently forcing the resignation of Sean Alteo, the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) leader who supported the bill—government has once again been left with the question of how to fix the long-standing problem of aboriginal education.

According to the background section of the Legislative Summary of Bill C-33, aboriginal high school certification rates on aboriginal reserves are at 35.5 per cent, as compared to 72 per cent in the rest of Canada. This is especially problematic when one considers the growing numbers of the aboriginal population when compared to the rest of the country.

The history of aboriginal education is a troubling one for Canada, dating back to the idea that cultural assimilation was the preferred outcome for the aboriginal population. The federal government followed though on this idea with the opening of residential schools in the late-19th century, an error not rectified until the last school shut its doors in 1996. Residential schools punished children who spoke in their native language and practiced native traditions, forcing them to speak English and follow a Christian-based education instead. In doing so, these schools aided in creating a generation of aboriginal peoples wary of government intervention. Even with the closure of the last residential schools, error on the part of government was not acknowledged until 2008, with an official apology and the commencement of The Truth Reconciliation Commission.

Recognizing a need to improve educational outcomes, the government set out working on establishing legislation to improve aboriginal education broadly, and more specifically to grant First Nations control over their own education. Yet despite its admirable intentions, the process — which led to the introduction of Bill C-33 in Parliament — occurred with limited consultation of the affected populations. The proposed legislation promised such things as increased funding for core education, including language and cultural instruction, aligning education standards with provincial standards off-reserve, proper certification of teachers, and student attendance requirements.

Although supported by former First Nations leader Sean Alteo, the majority of the aboriginal population heavily criticized the bill. Major criticisms surrounded the fact that the legislation had been drafted without sufficient consultation of the affected populations, that it effectively increased government control over First Nations education, and that it marked a continuation of the mentality that the government “knows what is best” for these communities. The government has been clear that without the support of the AFN, the bill would not pass; and, indeed, lack of support has effectively killed it.

Despite the desire for wide-spread input and consultation in these matters, however, it is perhaps idealistic to think there will ever be complete agreement amongst all 633 aboriginal groups in Canada with regards to the question of education. Indeed, some First Nations groups supported Bill C-33. Both the Meadow Lake Tribal Council and the Battleford Tribal Chiefs in Saskatchewan have publicly expressed a desire to see the bill put back on the table, citing the immediate need to counteract the underfunding of aboriginal education.

While aboriginal education is a contentious matter, it is clear that any future legislative and/or policy improvements must be made in partnership with the affected populations, respecting their right to control over — and the continuation of — their unique culture and identity. Accordingly, there is growing recognition amongst provincial governments as to the role they play in legislating education. A number of provinces have implemented programs to help in the improvement of aboriginal education. However, while these efforts mark a step toward an inclusive and culturally-understanding environment, they fail to reach those students on reserve who fall under the constitutional responsibility of the federal government.

With all this in mind, one must consider what the next steps may be for Canada’s federal government. The AFN has established a broad mandate of control over aboriginal education. It is clear that whatever happens in this policy area, it must be as much — and arguably, more — the affected population’s decision as it is the government’s. Moving forward, the Canadian government needs to find a meaningful way of incorporating the demands of aboriginal peoples into their decision-making process, lest they once more fall into the trap of thinking the government simply “knows what is best.”

Sarah MacDonald is a 2016 Master of Public Policy candidate at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance. She holds a Bachelor of Arts from McGill University, where she completed a joint honours in Political Science and International Development Studies, with a minor in English Theatre and Drama. Sarah’s main policy interests include healthcare, aboriginal, and foreign policy. ​



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