A Few Things I Heard about Education at the AFN Special Chiefs Assembly

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A Few Things I Heard about Education at the AFN Special Chiefs Assembly

I have to admit that I don’t know a lot about First Nations politics, specifically the workings of the Assembly of First Nations. Yet, since I work in the field of First Nations education (with MFNERC) I was interested to attend the AFN’s Special Chiefs Assembly Dec. 9-11, 2014, so I could hear what was said about the draft resolution – Federal Act for Funding First Nations Education.

I will also admit that I went to the assembly feeling somewhat cynical. I have read a lot of mainstream and indigenous-based media (plus many tweets) that have emphatically stated that the AFN must be either abolished or restructured. That it isn’t relevant. That it is too accommodating to the federal government. That it is disconnected from the communities it serves etc. I wasn’t sure what to expect, or if I would hear anything different or relevant. Well, I was actually surprised.

The Sacred Fire outside the Convention Centre in Winnipeg

The Sacred Fire outside the Convention Centre in Winnipeg

When First Nations education was being discussed, specifically the draft resolution, in my opinion the overall feelings were frustration, concern and a true desire for change. Most of the Chiefs supported the resolution, some opposed, but I was surprised by how insightful and impassioned their comments were. Like I said, I don’t know a lot. This was my first time at such an event. I was there to learn and observe. But at a time when many people are scrutinizing Chiefs and the way they are leading and using funds, I found myself hoping that action would be taken on the many ideas they were presenting. Whether that will actually happen remains to be seen. Yet, here are some statements I heard about First Nations education, (I must apologize that I did not get all the names of the Chiefs who spoke, it was sometimes hard to hear on the recording, and some of them didn’t state their name.):

Chief Walter Naveau, Mattagami First Nation: “When I was thinking about this resolution I gave it a great deal of thought. I thought back to 1969 when Jean Chretien was Minister of Indian Affairs and action took place from the federal government at the time to do away with aboriginal rights, to do away with the Indian Act, to force First Nations into mainstream society. Prior to that, our organizations across the country would not agree to anything. A young man from Alberta started a counter activity, what he loosely called the “Red Paper” and there were sessions across the country that globalized our people and a counter action took place and we all got on board. We raised the idea that we wanted to retain our aboriginal rights, treaty rights and how we view ourselves. This morning I thought back that far to look at a document that calls for the same kind commitment. Right now what’s needed from the Chiefs is support for an activity and an idea that is a starting block, this is what it’s about. I move this motion with those thoughts in mind.”

Chiefs waiting to speak on the education resolution

Chiefs waiting to speak on the education resolution

Chief Beardy, Muskrat Dam First Nation: “The way the federal government does what they propose, they will gradually put it in their own terms, not under our terms. So I would like to oppose this resolution. I’m not against education, but it will be like going back to the era of residential schools and we will be controlled in due time. And we will lose control of our First Nations education systems. So I urge you to think about this resolution and not go forward with it just because of the money. Vote against it. Let us come up with another alternative.”

Suggested amendment by a Chief: “The draft resolution has 6 main points. The 6th one states,  ‘THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED that the Chiefs-in-Assembly understand that implementation of this resolution is contingent upon a favourable response from the Government of Canada and their provision of sufficient funding to undertake activities as outlined in the aforementioned documents.’ I strongly recommend, that we add: ‘implementation of this resolution is contingent upon full removal of bill C-33 from the legislative process.’ Until that is removed we cannot and should not engage in any discussion with the federal government.”

Chief of Dakota-Tipi First Nation: “This morning I would like to say that I support the document, but once again I find our Chiefs are not together. We all seem to be opting out or opting in of this or that. We should all be together on this. We’re falling right into the hands of the government, giving everything – the power over our education – to the province. …I mentioned at the last [AFN] meeting that our system is not being at one with our native culture. We have to have an economy on the reserves. Our education systems have to follow that. Our schools should go right into our own high schools and community colleges on reserves. This is where we have to start looking. The government of Canada, all the money they give us for welfare, put that into economic development. Then we can have jobs for our young people. Instead we’re forcing our young kids into the urban areas. The money that the government is offering [for education] is $2 million. We’re asking for $4 billion. What are we going to do with that money?”

Chief from Ontario: “We can look at this document and pick it apart but the question is, when are we going to move forward? When are we going to place some trust in the people who are experts in the field and have lived in that field all their lives. I could find flaws in this resolution, but I don’t think that goes towards what we want to do. I think that we should learn from our mistakes. I think that we have to address a process that is open, accountable and transparent to all First Nations in Canada, regardless of which treaty or aboriginal or pre-Confederation area you come from. It has to enable and empower communities to move forward on their plans for nation building. I believe that the process should be inclusionary. The spirit of the resolution is what we need to embrace. Let’s not let our children down. Let’s hold them up and build them up. Will we make mistakes along the way? Yes. But will we learn from the mistakes? That is the most important thing. I support this resolution.”

Our booth at the Trade Show

Our booth at the Trade Show

Other things I took note of that were said by various Chiefs:
“I’m afraid we’re only going for money.”
“Stop bickering and finger pointing. Close the circle and put our children in the middle.”
“I don’t think just passing a law and allocating new money is going to change statistics. We need to address the root causes of why children are dropping out and not going to school. Perhaps an alternative learning program needs to be developed so that children stay in school.”
“You know who’s failing? People who jump when there’s money.”
“Transparency and accountability are what matter.”
“The federal government treats us only as a ‘policy’. This has to change.”
“This resolution is the beginning stages of giving our children a safe place to learn. I support this. This is what our children need.”

This is just a small snapshot of the many things that were said. I came away thinking that there is so much more that needs to be debated and decided upon. In the end, the resolution passed, with some amendments. But I am even more curious, even hopeful, about what the future holds for First Nations education. The ideas are there, but will the actions follow through?

For what I believe is a pretty good summary about the recent history of the Assembly of First Nations and the job ahead for new National Chief Perry Bellegarde here’s a recent editorial from the Winnipeg Free Press:
Bellegarde, Canada Come Out on Top.”

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