Education Report Calls for Urgent Action on First Nation Schools

The long-awaited national report on First Nations education by the National Panel on First Nation Elementary and Secondary Education for Students on Reserve held few surprises as it was delivered on February 8: Schools are underfunded, understaffed and choked with mold or other structural deficiencies--not exactly conducive to learning.

The eagerly awaited national report on First Nations elementary and secondary education conducted by the Assembly of First Nations in conjunction with the federal government has been released, calling for the immediate formation of a national commission on education and for new legislation, the First Nations Education Act.

These are two of the key recommendations issued by the three-member National Panel on First Nation Elementary and Secondary Education for Students on Reserve in its 55-page report, released on February 8. The panel suggested that the commission be launched within three months.

Struck by the federal government and Assembly of First Nations, the panel was mandated to produce non-binding recommendations aimed at improving First Nations elementary and secondary education.

"Childhood lasts only 988 weeks, and school years pass by even more quickly," the report noted. "It is, therefore, critical that the government of Canada and First Nations leaders move forward together to change a system that has consigned so many First Nation students."

Other recommendations include increased funding, more efficient tracking and reporting of learning outcomes, and establishing a First Nation education system with regional education bodies.

Reserve schools are barely meeting needs that public schools take for granted, the panel found, citing evidence of unequal school staff compensation and a lack of equipment in libraries, shops and gymnasiums, as well as inadequate supports for special needs students.

The federal government considers First Nations a top priority and is reviewing the recommendations.

“We are working to put students first and ensure they have an education that supports strong, self-sufficient individuals who can participate fully in Canada’s economic opportunities,” Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan said.

But the three-month timeline for the national commission is “aspirational,” Duncan told The Globe and Mail.

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo said now is the time to act.

“First Nations set education as a priority and have consistently advocated for sustainable, equitable First Nations education systems that put our children first," Atleo said in a statement. ”I am encouraged that this report acknowledges the urgency; now every First Nation leader and educator must have the opportunity to reflect on their own path forward.”

Many are already doing so. In Ontario, the Nishnawbe Aski Nation released its own First Nations education report a day before the national panel’s. NAN said it rejected the panel process because it was struck without First Nations input and amounted to a back-door attempt by government to control aboriginal education and compromise treaty rights.

“This report has found that the administration of education under the Indian Act is a failed paternalistic regime, with policy driven not by education outcomes but by severely flawed funding formulas that are hopelessly outdated and discriminatory against First Nations,” said NAN Deputy Grand Chief Terry Waboose in a news release.

The NAN report said a new education system is needed that meets provincial standards and fulfills Canada’s Treaty obligations to NAN First Nations. It calls for government to provide adequate funding to on reserve schools that will improve support services, special education provision, teacher salaries, and better curriculum.

The day after the national report came out, the Chiefs of Ontario issued their own—Our Children, Our Future, Our Vision: First Nations Jurisdiction over First Nations Education—to “ensure [that] regional diversity within Ontario [is] respected and captured,” they said in a statement.

A previous alternative report was also issued by NAN, the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN) and the Quebec First Nations Education Council in November 2011. Last August, 230 First Nations broke with the national panel and declined to participate over similar concerns about First Nation autonomy when it comes to education reform.