LONDON — Grave concerns about the federal government’s handling of Indigenous students’ education is prompting educators, parents, and community members throughout Ontario to seek new ways to improve school outcomes while also strengthening students’ cultural identity.
Now, two new programs taking root in southwestern Ontario are promising local First Nations communities greater control over the education of their children.
One of these is the Anishinabek Education System, an initiative that will restructure the way education and its associated funding is delivered. Under the new system, federal education funding intended for Indigenous children will flow to the participating First Nations through an associated administrative body and will allow the communities to control all aspects of how they spend their money on education, and will enable them to pool resources. Proponents hope the changes will lead to greater student achievement, including graduation rates; that it will foster culturally relevant curriculum, especially language teaching; and will improve accountability for First Nations parents by encouraging transparent data collection on educational outcomes.
Funding “will come in one lump, like a grant, and we will use it where we need it,” says Vicki Ware, education co-ordinator for Aamjiwnaang First Nation and a board director of the AES’s new administrative structure. “We are now going to have more authority in terms of [classroom] content, the programs, the delivery.”
The system is expected to launch next year, and two of 23 participating nations are from southwestern Ontario: the Aamjiwnaang First Nation next to Sarnia, and Munsee Delaware Nation, west of London. Once the Anishinabek Education System (AES) comes into effect, participating First Nations will still receive federal funds, but these will go through the Kinoomaadziwin Education Body to be dispersed among the nations. The body was formed by the Union of Ontario Indians (the secretariat of the 40-member Anishinabek First Nations) to manage and implement the new system. Participating First Nations that operate on-reserve schools will remain in control of these as well as their other education responsibilities, but the system will supply employees specializing in culture and language to work with the Ontario ministry of education and its school boards to deliver services and help negotiate agreements, Ware explains.
Ware expects that in southwestern Ontario, the Anishinabek system will have its greatest impact on children who are enrolled in the provincial school system (as opposed to on-reserve schools), by improving the provincial system’s delivery of Anishnaabe cultural, heritage, and language instruction. As it stands now, a survey in 2012 and 2013 found that 51 per cent of provincial elementary schools and 41 one per cent of provincial high schools “provided no aboriginal education opportunities.”
One big hurdle locally, Ware says, has been the delivery of Ojibwe instruction in area school boards. The challenge has been finding instructors with Ontario College of Teachers certification. Moreover, the level of language instruction currently offered is very basic and far below the delivery standard used for French education. “There’s no fluency that happens, there’s no conversational language development,” she explains. “We’re hoping that with the AES system we can look at other ways of delivering the language program.”
She says even students from non-member First Nations who are using the school boards will benefit from improvements in language and cultural instruction. That’s because a robust organization like the AES will use its control of education dollars to develop better education strategies for First Nations students, which will then disseminate into schools across the province regardless of which system they happen to belong to.
Funding flexibility is another benefit of AES. Under the current system, the federal government oversees and funds education for First Nation, Métis, and Inuit peoples. Each nation applies for money that’s available under different categories, such as transportation, tuition, administrative costs and special education. The funding is then dispensed through Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada to nations that operate schools in their communities.
In Ontario, most First Nations have an education committee that, among other things, establishes educational expectations for their on-reserve schools (most of these schools in Ontario follow the provincial curriculum and enhance it with cultural and language programming).
First Nations without schools can obtain spaces for students in the conventional Ontario education system, and in many instances, they work with area school boards to monitor students and integrate cultural and language programming into classrooms. School boards then directly invoice the federal department for their services.
Oscar Correia, Munsee Delaware Nation education co-ordinator, says the problem with these arrangements is that the federal bureaucracy makes it difficult for First Nations to predict education finances and plan accordingly. For instance, schools and First Nation education committees often have to apply for special project funding whenever initiatives and activities arise. “So if we want some money for something [new], we can write a proposal and they can [accept or] reject it,” Correia says.
What makes matters even more challenging is that First Nations must return any unspent educational money to the federal government. Correia says Munsee Delaware – which doesn’t operate a school, and whose students mostly attend schools within the Thames Valley District School Board — will benefit from being able to control education dollars, and not having to return unspent funds to the federal government.
“What we get, we get to keep,” he says.
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Meanwhile, AES participants will also eventually be able to obtain data — everything from attendance to graduation rates — about their students from local school boards, something that is currently not an automatic requirement.
Despite the purported benefits, not all First Nations in Ontario’s southwest are joining the system. Some, such as Walpole Island First Nation near Wallaceburg, and Oneida on the Thames west of London, don’t belong to the Union of Ontario Indians, which developed AES. Others within the union, such as Chippewas of the Thames First Nation west of London and Kettle and Stony Point First Nation on Lake Huron near Grand Bend, have opted out.
“We’ve been yanked in and out of so many education systems by the government of Canada, I don’t think they know what’s good or what’s bad for our people anymore,” says Thomas Bressette, chief of the Kettle and Stony Point First Nation. He would rather see a return of a Martin Family Initiative-led model school literacy project, which was piloted at the community’s Hilltop school and at the Walpole Island Elementary School in Walpole First Nation (near Wallaceburg) from 2009 to 2014. The program, unlike the AES, has been tested and found to be a success, he says. “We’re trying to get that one back.”
Bressette says Kettle and Stony Point members “never had a very clear understanding of whether they were going to have direct say or more to say [under the Anishinabek system] as they did when they had the Martin Family Initiative.”
The Montreal-based philanthropic organization’s program supports reading and writing skills from kindergarten to Grade 3. The pilot schools’ performance rate improvement on the Ontario Grade 3 reading skills test was profound: In 2010, just 13 per cent of the students met the standard set down by the province; by 2015, 81 per cent of students met or exceeded it.
The Martin Family Initiative is receiving $30 million in federal funding to introduce the four-year program to 18 more First Nation schools across the country by 2020. So far, the program is operating in six schools, including Oneida Nation of the Thames. Julia O’Sullivan, program director, says the organization is talking with the two pilot schools to see how they could continue to be involved. “We want to be a family of schools,” she says.
That “family,” however, is not a system formalized in the same way the Anishinabek Education System will be. O’Sullivan says nations don’t really have to choose: In theory, schools could be involved in both programs. She notes an Alberta school that’s enrolled in the Martin Family Initiative program is also joining an aggregated system similar to AES.
Ware says that as AES evolves, other Anishinabek First Nations will be able to join in if they want to. “I think we’re going to see more changes as we go along in terms of education and all First Nations benefitting from it.”
And while the AES is set to begin operating next year, she expects it will take a decade to develop and introduce all of the system’s components, for example the framework for school boards to share data with the First Nations. Right now, forming the corporate structure is the priority — hiring the education director, finance staff, and people who will specialize in culture and language education.
“As this falls into place, it will change how education will be delivered in Ontario,” Ware says. “It’s exciting.”
This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting southwestern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of faculty and students from Western University’s Faculty of Information and Media Studies.
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