Copyright © 2019 Senator Dennis Patterson.

Speech – C-61 – Second Reading

Anishinabek Nation Education Agreement Bill

Bill to Amend—Second Reading

December 7, 2017

Hon. Dennis Glen Patterson: Honourable senators, I’m happy to speak today as the critic for Bill C-61, an Act to give effect to the Anishinabek Nation Education Agreement and to make consequential amendments to other Acts. As Senator Christmas has so well explained, this bill seeks to provide Anishinabek First Nations with self-determination over education, enabling participating First Nations to tailor curricula in a way that supports culture and language and to have sole discretion over how funds are spent on education programs, based on the priorities of individual communities.

After 22 years of negotiations between Anishinabek and Canada, 23 of the 39 First Nations that make up the Anishinabek Nation have ratified this agreement. Provisions within the bill would allow for the remaining nations to become scheduled to the act should they wish to in the future. I hope and expect they will.

It is hoped this new system will help to improve education outcomes and close socio-economic gaps between indigenous and non-indigenous Canadians. The standards that have been put in place mirror those of Ontario’s education system in an effort to allow for the seamless transition of children between Anishinabek and non-indigenous schools in the province.

During the study of First Nation education conducted by your Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples, which I was privileged to be a part of, we found that First Nation control of education is vital to the preservation of language and culture for indigenous peoples. In our report, entitled Reforming First Nations Education: From Crisis to Hope, tabled in the Senate in December 2011, we discussed the potential for legislated reforms to help to improve education outcomes for First Nations students. We included a quote from then Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, the late Honourable Jim Prentice, who said:

There is, in fact, no education system for the First Nations. . . . All other children in this country benefit from legal protection in the field of education. The only children deprived of this security are First Nations children living on reserves.

Our previous Conservative government strongly believed that First Nations control of education was the key to the success of students. Creating specialized curricula and putting existing curricula through an indigenous lens is, I believe, critical to helping students connect with what has been traditionally Eurocentric history and culture. That is why the Harper government proposed Bill C-33, An Act to establish a framework to enable First Nations control of elementary and secondary education and to provide for related funding and to make related amendments to the Indian Act and consequential amendments to other Acts. The government of the day believed that by creating what would essentially have been school boards and providing long-term, stable and predictable funding, First Nations would be able to develop strong curricula that was culturally relevant to their particular nation.

A significant recommendation of the Senate Standing Committee on Aboriginal Peoples, which lines up with this legislation before us today, was that:

That the Government of Canada, in consultation with First Nations and First Nations educational authorities, develop a First Nations Education Act; that this Act explicitly recognize the authority of First Nations for on-reserve elementary and secondary education; and that it enable the establishment of First Nations controlled second-and-third level education structures; and that the application of this Act to individual First Nations communities be optional, and provide for the repeal of the education sections of the Indian Act for those First Nations that opt into the new Act.

I would like to acknowledge today the former chair of that committee, Senator Gerry St. Germain, and current senators Lillian Dyck, Salma Ataullahjan, Patrick Brazeau, Larry Campbell, Sandra Lovelace Nicholas, Jim Munson and Nancy Greene Raine, who were members of that committee when this report was adopted by the Senate.

In essence, as I understand it, this recommendation reflects the basis for the bill before us today. Frankly, honourable senators, in the course of our committee study, we found that in the present system, competing priorities sometimes force chiefs and councils to reallocate monies originally earmarked for education. Sometimes we found that this meant that precious monies for education went to other non-education purposes, such as housing or servicing debt. This bill will ensure that monies allocated for education are used for that purpose alone.

I just want to say, as a former education minister in the Northwest Territories — and I was privileged to have held that position for over 10 years — I understand the importance of turning over control of education to local authorities. That’s why I introduced legislation in the N.W.T. assembly that established school boards. We called them divisional boards of education throughout the territory.

In 1981, the Northwest Territories legislature established a special committee on education because of widespread concerns about problems in our N.W.T. community schools, which resonate today in some First Nations communities. Significant attendance problems, poor graduation rates, lack of Native-language curriculum materials and shortage of Native teachers were among the challenges.

At extensive community hearings throughout the N.W.T., the special committee, of which I was a member, found that parents did not have a sense of ownership of their community schools. So a main recommendation amongst many of that special committee, in their landmark report Learning: Tradition and Change in the Northwest Territories, was that parents be given a strong voice in the operation of their schools through the establishment of what were called divisional or regional boards of education. In making that particular recommendation, committee members were inspired by the success of the Frontier School Division in Manitoba, where a similar board gave a strong voice to Aboriginal parents in that region.

Colleagues, giving parents a strong voice in the operation of their schools is especially important in regions like the traditional lands of the Anishinabek, where culture and language should be reflected in the operations of community schools. That was the case in the N.W.T., with seven Aboriginal languages and an Aboriginal majority in the population.

When I became Minister of Education, my mandate was to implement the recommendations of the special committee. The results were significant. School attendance improved. Curriculum materials were developed at so-called teaching and learning centres that were reflective of the language and history of the regions. More Aboriginal teachers were trained, and graduation rates improved. Sadly, the new Nunavut government, in 1999, in its wisdom, decided that divisional education and health boards were a threat to the authority of elected M.L.A.s and cabinet ministers and dissolved both education and health boards, citing the decision as a cost-saving measure. I have no doubt that this is a primary reason why these two very culturally sensitive departments of the Government of Nunavut have been struggling with serious problems, including poor attendance and graduation rates in Nunavut schools, a failure to develop curriculum materials in the Inuktitut language and falling far short of stated goals of implementing a bilingual education system.

The idea of giving control of First Nation education to First Nations has long been discussed as an important step to help students succeed. In 1973, the National Indian Brotherhood, the precursor to the Assembly of First Nations, published a policy paper entitled Indian Control of Indian Education. In it, they describe what they called the Indian philosophy of education.

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In Indian tradition, each adult is personally responsible for each child, to see that he learns all he needs to know in order to live a good life. As our fathers had a clear idea of what made a good man and a good life in their society, so we modern Indians, want our children to learn that happiness and satisfaction come from:

  • pride in one’s self,

  • understanding one’s fellowmen, and,

  • living in harmony with nature.

Maybe that phrase should be gender sensitive. It occurs to me in reading it today, in 2017, honourable senators.

They go on to say, “School programs which are influenced by these values respect cultural priority and are an extension of the education which parents give children from their first years.”

These ideals are also encompassed in the road map laid out in “Nurturing the Learning Spirit of First Nation Students,” a 2011 report by the National Panel on First Nation Elementary and Secondary Education for Students On-Reserve. The panel describes in detail their proposed path forward on better education for First Nation students and said:

A strong First Nation education system would be built upon a solid foundation that encompasses the following:

The co-creation of legislation in the form of a First Nation Education Act that outlines responsibilities for each partner in the system and recognizes and protects the First Nation child’s right to their culture, language and identity, a quality education, funding of the system, and First Nation control of First Nation education;

Statutory funding that is needs-based, predictable, sustainable and used specifically for education purposes;

The establishment of regional educational support organizations that are designed and delivered by First Nations; and

Development of strong partnerships and reciprocal accountability between First Nation schools and educational organizations and provincial education institutions.

I also heard this first-hand when Harry Lafond, Executive Director in the Office of the Treaty Commissioner of Saskatchewan, told the Aboriginal People’s Committee:

What we need is legislation to allow recognition of existing institutions in our communities and for the First Nations communities to come alive and to be honoured for the work that they are responsible for in organizing education for our children.

Finally, on the issue of the importance of First Nation control of education, it should be noted that the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and in particular Article 14, states:

Indigenous peoples have the right to establish and control their educational systems and institutions providing education in their own languages, in a manner appropriate to their cultural methods of teaching and learning.

Colleagues, this bill will also authorize the transfer of transitional funding and new, stable, long-term funding to the Kinoomaadziwin Education Body, a provincially incorporated organization that will act as a school board and coordinating body for the disbursement of federal funding to participating communities.

With these new funds comes what is promised to be a rigorous reporting structure that will keep this self-governing organization transparent and accountable to the participating First Nations. Kinoomaadziwin will also be added to the schedule as an organization subject to the Access to Information Act. Funding will be reviewed every five years and the goals for educational outcomes will be reviewed every three years.

I am happy to that see that stable, predictable and long-term funding will be provided that will also mirror any general funding increases provided by the Government of Canada to First Nations not party to this agreement. It is, in fact, in line with another one of our committee’s recommendations.

However, I must say I am concerned that this bill does not address the lack of adequate capital infrastructure on reserve. Over the course of our study — and we were in northern Ontario — we also saw first-hand the need for better schools. High educational attainment cannot be achieved, regardless of how good the program is, if there is nowhere to deliver these classes.

In the previous Bill C-33, there were three tranches of funding proposed. One stream was to be core statutory funding, including funding for language and culture; the second stream was transition funding to support implementation of the new legislative framework; and the third stream was funding for long-term investment in on-reserve school infrastructure. I will be looking to examine this gap in the funding agreement more closely at committee.

In closing, honourable senators, I would like to leave you with a powerful quote from Chief Dan George. When asked about his thoughts on moving forward on First Nation education, Chief George said:

There is a longing among the youth of my nation to secure for themselves and their people the skills that will provide them with a sense of purpose and worth. They will be our new warriors; their training will be much longer and more demanding than it was in the olden days . . . but they will emerge with their hand held forward not to receive welfare, but to grasp a place in society that is rightly ours.