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Defenders for Human Rights

Transcripts for Karihwakè:ron Tim Thompson interview on First Nations Education in Canada

First Nations Students (Part 1 of 6)

Question: How many First Nations’ students attend school on reserves?

Tim Thompson: Approximately 118,000 students across the country attending over 500 First Nations elementary and secondary schools. Most of those schools or about three quarters of those schools are elementary schools. Those 118,000 students come from a diverse background of First Nations cultures representing approximately 53 First Nations languages.

Education Funding (Part 2 of 6)

Question: The government of Canada provides transfer payments to every province and territory to help fund the public education system in canada. So why do these transfer payments not include funds for First Nations education?

Tim Thompson: The First Nations relationship with the Canadian State with the Crown go back to Treaty times prior to Confederation. When Canada became a country, section 91(24) of the British North America Act gave the federal government responsibility for Indians, and lands reserved for Indians. Using that authority, they created a legislation called the Indian Act in sections 114 to 122, lays out their educational responsibilities. So going back even before Confederation, you have the implementation of a federal system of education for First Nations’ people.

Many people by now have heard of residential schools and boarding schools. Those were implemented around the 1850s. Gradually you had a system of Indian day schools on Reserves. Those have evolved since around the 1950s into some of the schools we have now. There has been some evolution of thinking on the part of the federal government over the years, but I think it’s fair to say we’re still in a federal system of education. It’s still governed by legislation created by the federal government. In fact, the very provisions that are there in the current Indian act are unchanged since 1951, so we are working within a legal framework that’s approaching 70 years. So it was created to meet a federal imperative at the time of encouraging the integration of First Nations’ individuals into mainstream.

The idea they still believed at the time was that we would disappear, so they felt that this would give us some basis of skills and knowledge in which we could succeed as individuals within the diaspora of the country.

The policy and regulatory frameworks are all outdated. They continue to be defined by the Federal government. The funding formulas for our schools are unilaterally defined by the federal government that was created in 1987-88. Most provinces change their funding formulas for schools every five to ten years, ours have been in place for two generations of students.

In 1972, First Nations stood up to try to change this and issued a policy paper called Indian Control of Indian Education. Clearly a demand to end the social experiment that’s been conducted for more than a century and a half. And we still stand by that today.

Inequitable Funding (Part 3 of 6)

Question: Why are indigenous students on reserves, and students off reserves in Canada, funded a different amount for their education when education is a guaranteed right to every child in this country?

Tim Thompson: It’s a great question. It’s a question we continue to ask. The funding agreement of the Federal government implements in transferring funds to First Nations’ schools has a provision that used to explicitly say that in response for us giving these funds to the school, the school should offer an education comparable to that provided in a provincial system. They’ve changed the terminology somewhat to say that programs that are provided in a First Nations school should enable a student to transfer from that school to a provincial system without penalty.

Really it means the same thing. Our educators, our school administrators, the Chiefs in counsel ask, if this is what you are looking for, if you are looking for some comparability or equitability, why are the funds that you are providing not similar to those that have been provided in provincial systems? So you are asking a question that has yet to be answered.

There are many ways to crunch the data. Though we do know that taking the funds that were provided in 1996-97, if you look at the total figures, the Federal government decided to cap that amount, we are only going to provide a maximum 2% increase every year. We know at the time our population was growing by a certain amount, cost of teacher salaries and books and other materials in this system were rising by a certain amount. We believe that roughly 6.2% increase was required at the time. Here we are 20 years later and there is still a 2% cap on First Nations’ education funding. The 6.2% never materialized.

We believe that there could be a gap exceeding $2 billion dollars now for First Nations’ education in Canada. It goes back to your question. Why does it exist? Why is there this gap? We think there are probably many reasons for that. I don’t know if there is any one answer. We also have to remember that First Nations’ education isn’t the only thing that was capped in 1996-97. Social programs were also capped. Funding for First Nations’ governments was capped. Funding for First Nations housing was capped and funding for First Nations’ infrastructure operations and maintenance was also capped. So those caps on funding, those ceilings that were placed are still in place two decades later. So we have a funding crisis generally that’s been created for First Nations’ government that really has a drastic effect on education.

First Nations Education (Part 4 of 6)

Question: If i am a First Nations’ student, going to school on reserve, what does my education look like?

Tim Thompson: Roughly 60% of First Nations’ students go to school on Reserve. They would be receiving an education that receives equivalent programming to what you provide in mainstream schools in terms of basic requirements. What a lot of schools are challenged with is the breath of resources.

The funding formulas do not provide for libraries in First Nations’ schools. There is inadequate funding for computers and technology. That’s not part of this formula that was developed in 1988. Language immersion programs are rare. They exist to some extent. But we only have one First Nation’ school in Canada where you can go from kindergarten to graduation in a First Nations language. So there are definitely funding challenges that affect the breath of resources and options that exist within the school level.

There are challenges in terms of teacher turnover due to the inadequate funding and yet you have some wonderfully schools. We also have very committed educators at the local level. There are some incredible champions across the country that pour their heart and soul into this. Those are the people who inspire change. They are the people who are the backbone of all the advocacy that occurs in First Nations’ education.

The Ideal First Nations Classroom (Part 5 of 6)

Question: What do you think First Nations’ education should look like? What would be your ideal classroom system?

Tim Thompson: I think that what we are hearing from the people at large is … They’re inspired by the 1972 policy paper which called in its essence for parental control of First Nations’ Education, Community Control of First Nations’ Education. That First Nations’ communities and nations need to call the shots.

We can’t continue to exist in a social engineering framework that’s a century and a half old. There has been consistency in what First Nations across the country have been saying since the 1972 policy paper, almost 50 years in demanding culturally relevant high quality education that reflects the needs of First Nations’ learners. You don’t hear people saying we want isolation. We are saying that we want to be able to walk in two worlds, not just one, not just be prepared for integration into one and that we need to be prepared to exist as human beings in two worlds. You can find great examples across the country where inroads have been made, where some wonderful curriculum has been developed with some good language, immersion initiatives have started up, where excellent teacher training initiatives are occurring. It’s systemic change that’s slow in coming. You have wonderful motivated people who are creating change at the local level. Systemic changes are slow to come. So we continue to press forward.

Where do we go from here? (Part 6 of 6)

Question: what do you think it’s going to take to get there?

Tim Thompson: More public education. We need Canadians to be able to tell their leadership that it’s time for a change, that it’s time to work with First Nations’ people and in the spirit of the treaties, to truly have respect across the table, to mutually build something that reflects everybody’s needs and interests in First Nations’ communities.

Again, there is a lot of myths to break through. First Nations’ people are looking for opportunity that ensures our identities are strong, that ensures that we can make contributions to our communities and to the world around us. We’ve always had a hard time finding out why that is so scary, why there should be any limitation on the desires of the government to remove the bonds that have been imposed through legislation and policy and funding. There’s always hope. So we continue to press, we continue to work toward this change.

Host: Thank you very much, Tim.

Tim Thompson: Niá:wen (Thank you). Lo (You're welcome).