On November 8th, 2023, the Manitoba First Nations Education Resource Centre was presented with the inaugural National Indigenous STEM Award for excellence in advancing Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) in First Nations schools by award sponsor Let’s Talk Science.
The award was presented at the First Nations Education Administrators Association (FNEAA) conference at the Fairmont Hotel in Winnipeg. Let’s Talk Science president and founder, Bonnie Schmidt, appeared virtually during the award ceremony, saying, “We are pleased to sponsor this year’s award to the Manitoba First Nations Education Resource Centre, recognizing their excellence in Indigenous STEM and supporting First Nations schools through their programs, services and science fairs.”
The National Indigenous STEM Award was handed to the Resource Centre’s executive director, Charles Cochrane, by the provincial Minister of Education and Early Childhood Learning, Nello Altomare, who stated, “I was honoured to join Tammy Webster, Director of Equity with Let’s Talk Science, to present the National Indigenous STEM Award to the Manitoba First Nations Education Resource Centre at the FNEAA conference this year. This award recognizes the organization’s excellence in advancing Indigenous STEM initiatives in First Nations schools throughout the Province.”
The Minister has also acknowledged the importance of the Resources Centre’s work in bringing STEM education to First Nations schools.
“Ensuring First Nations schools have access to STEM education is so important. STEM education provides students with knowledge in core subjects of sciences and math, as well as important skills that will serve them well in any career path. As the Minister of Education and Early Childhood Learning, it is my goal to ensure every student in Manitoba has the resources they need to succeed. I am grateful to organizations like Manitoba First Nations Education Resource Centre for the excellent work they are doing, and I look forward to continuing to work in partnership to expand opportunities for First Nations students across Manitoba,” Minister Altomare says.
We recently held the first Youth Land-based Numeracy Fair, hosted by the MFNERC Numeracy Team and supported by Language and Culture facilitators, at St Vital Park in Winnipeg. The land-based activities aimed to provide a culturally responsive education, connect to numeracy concepts, and develop math skills in a fun learning environment. Over 50 students from a number of First Nations schools took part in some land-based learning as well as lessons relating to language, numeracy, science, and much more. Here are just a few photos from that great day of fun and learning.
The 2023 Circle of Knowledge and Practices Conference was a great success! Not only was it visited by numerous VIPs, like the Grand Chief of the AMC, the AFN Regional Chief for Manitoba, the Treaty Relations Commissioner, and the Deputy Minister of Education, but it also included the new Premier-elect Wab Kinew, who walked in the Grand Entry and sat down with the Walking Wolf Singers and Dancers for a drum song. With over 900 attendees, which were entirely MFNERC and MFNSS staff, and over 40 workshops, CKP 2023 provided professional development opportunities that will be taken back to member First Nations schools and used to enhance the classroom experience for First Nations students.
The keynote speaker, Rosalie Tsannie Burseth, was able to speak during the lunch on the first day but also held a workshop for those interested in better hearing her message.
We would like to thank all the Elders, First Nations leadership, Walking Wolf Singers and Dancers, staff, and others who contributed to a successful conference. Special thanks to Elder Wally Swain, who held our pipe ceremonies every morning, and Long Plain Chief Kyra Wilson, who invited us to hold the conference in Treaty One territory.
Taking part in science fairs can transform a life.
The Resource Centre’s Science and Technology facilitator, Alberto Mansilla, has seen the impact that submitting an experiment for a science fair and then presenting their work to others has had on students across the province.
“It builds their self-confidence, which can make such an impact in their future. One hundred per cent of the time, even if they are not recognized at the end, there is that building up of confidence in that student. When they come back, they are different.”
Mansilla explains the process of taking part in the science fair includes so many elements of a student’s learning experience that it cannot help but have an effect and benefits for both students and teachers. He says at schools served by the Resource Centre and the Manitoba First Nations School System (MFNSS), the process starts with students looking around at their local environment and gaining a better understanding that everyone is a part of the world around them.
“It starts with the work plan, which is focused on project-based and place-based learning. We want them to study their own environment and study the ecosystems around them—the trees around them, the animals, the plants, and the climate. Due to the place-based learning, they become conscious of being part of the environment around them, which is the idea behind the First Nations Education Framework. We want them to develop a respect for their environment and for their Elders. For them to be able to give gratitude for what makes them alive, what gives them life.”
Creating a science fair project touches on numerous skills and subjects, including written and verbal communication; math skills like graph-making or statistical analysis; and, of course, science and the scientific method. Mansilla says it starts with the student looking around their First Nation and identifying a challenge or process they want to resolve or better understand.
“Students will look for a problem, very near to their heart, that they want to solve, which then becomes the introduction and the background of their project. They’ll use their English studies or their own First Nations language to develop that. Then, a question arises: What do they want to do to better understand the issue? So, the phrasing of the hypothesis and the statistical analysis comes in. And then, the methodology and the critical thinking: How would they solve this problem? They must come up with a plan and an experiment. And, once they have the results of the experiment, they’ll be introduced to mathematical concepts like graphs, tables, and comparable analysis.”
Mansilla says there is a thread that goes through the making of the science fair project that flows through the entire Manitoba science curriculum, including Cluster 0, which includes scientific inquiry and the design process. The students are also expected to create a bibliography and acknowledgments so they better understand that today’s science, like so many things in life, is built on the work of others who have gone on before.
“The science fair project is a series of activities that will really awaken their scientific ability, and the focus is not on the competition, it’s about participation, but the science fair can also develop the competitive self. It introduces the idea of the student building up their confidence, so they can provide a proper and effective presentation. Every time a child presents at the science fair, we are so conscious that all this is taking place. All of this is embedded into that simple activity of the science project. All the curriculum is in there, everything.”
While Mansilla insists the science fair is not about competition, he does admit a student winning the science fair can get everyone involved with the local school excited. He tells the story of one school within MFNSS that was not putting forward any projects. The Resource Centre’s staff went to the school asking how they could support them in developing student interest in participating. Eventually, the teacher asked all their students to submit an idea for an experiment based on local concerns. This led to a few students submitting projects for consideration, including one Grade 12 student who hand-wrote the explanations on their presentation board. Due to the hand-written notes, their potential experiment was overlooked, but the Resource Centre supervisor encouraged the science facilitator to go back and take another look. In the end, the student’s project was chosen to go to the next stage. While their presentation board wasn’t much to look at, the student was able to clearly explain what they wanted from their experiment. What followed was two months of analysis and development. Given the subject of the experiment, the student worked with one of the Resource Centre’s school psychologists and the science facilitator to flesh out the idea and hone the project. Eventually, the student won third prize at the Canada-Wide Science Fair (CWSF). Mansilla says that after that one student did so well, the whole school was awakened to the benefits of submitting science fair projects.
“Suddenly, everyone wanted to do it. For years after, that school was so active. It really awakened everyone from the teachers and the students to the parents and the Chief and Council. That student went on to train with the military, part of what they won was a one-year, science-related scholarship to one of the sponsoring universities that helped with their future studies. It changed their life.”
A focus on the Medicine Wheel and First Nations philosophies is one of the special things about science fair projects that come out of the Resource Centre and MFNSS. Coming from the Philippines, Mansilla says he is happy that students are learning about their connections to the land, the people around them, and their spiritual side. He says the teachings about these connections are often missing from the curriculums of other cultures.
“We are developing a system of using First Nations languages and cultures as the context of everything we deliver to the communities. We have been developing comprehensive lesson plans that allow us to use the Medicine Wheel and, at the same time, acknowledging the cognitive knowledge, the physical, the spiritual, and then the social aspects of life. In my experience, almost all the countries in Asia are very focused on cognitive knowledge. We force our kids to do drills, like in math. But we have forgotten the social, we have forgotten the spiritual, we forgot the physical. It creates a sort of disconnect with the families, and it creates a disconnect with the people around you. The only focus is to learn, learn, learn without the social interactions and without the spiritual support.”
Taking part in the science fair program is very rewarding for Mansilla. He says it can offer a lot to teachers too as it gives them insight into how well their students are comprehending lessons by having the students to put their learning into action. Since the projects involve all aspects of the curriculum, teachers can see the impact that they are having with real-world results. He encourages teachers to take part in the regional science fairs to, eventually, have some of their students reach the national level.
“Every year it identifies the most brilliant kids in Canada. At CWSF, there are only 10 gold, 30 silver, and 40 bronze medals, and that is it. The CWSF averages around 400 students each year. So, when you get that bronze, it is not just bronze—you have proven you are a part of the one per cent of the most brilliant young people in Canada. And there is also the recognition from post-secondary institutions, like the First Nations University of Canada. There are so many universities and colleges there. It drives us to excel, to really help the teachers. When a student does well, it shows everyone what has been accomplished. It makes us so proud that we can guide a student and expand their understanding of what is possible in their life.”
One Student’s Experience at the Canada-Wide Science Fair
Sarabelle Garson is from Fisher River Cree Nation and her project on the Three Sisters—corn, bean, and squash—and why they should be grown together won her a gold at the Resource Centre’s Regional Science Fair in Winnipeg. After her win at the regional level, she went on to CWSF in Edmonton. Sarabelle was interviewed in Edmonton just before the final judging and spoke about her experience up to that point.
“It’s been good so far. It’s been really busy, and I’ve been trying to do as much reading as I possibly can. I’ve been trying to read up on my board, just to make sure I can recite everything, and I have everything stuck in my head.”
After the first round of judging, Sarabelle gained a better idea of what was expected at the national level and how to work on improving her presentation.
“My first judge, I couldn’t answer a few of her questions because I didn’t really know what to expect at first, and I was a little bit nervous and I didn’t say a lot of the things I wanted to say at first. But with the last few judges, I did really well because I knew what to expect this time, and I learned from my first one. So, I did the opposite of what I did wrong.”
Two other projects came out of the Resource Centre’s and MFNSS’ science fair process and their creators also had a chance to go. When in Edmonton, the students took part in several activities including a visit to the University of Alberta and Canada’s largest mall.
The trip to the university inspired Sarabelle to think about her future.
“It was really cool to see. I have never been to a university, like, on a tour like that before. And I got to see those rocks and computer programming. I got to learn a lot of new cool stuff. I want to go to university for sure. Maybe science, but I’m not 100 per cent sure of what I want to do yet.”
Of course, the trip to the mall was a highlight.
“I like the sightseeing. There is a lot of stuff I haven’t seen before out here, especially the mall. The ship inside the mall was really cool to see. I kind of have a shopping addiction. I got a lot of clothes. I want to buy a souvenir that has something about Edmonton on it. I want to buy something that will help me remember here.”
Although she didn’t place at CWSF, Sarabelle says the trip was worth all the hard work that went into her project and she has come out a different person.
“I’m already proud of myself for coming this far. I’d say I was a shy person, but if somebody talked to me, I would talk to them. I talk a lot louder now, and I can speak a lot more about things. Before, I couldn’t speak as much because it was my first time winning in Winnipeg. But now, I know a lot more, and I know what to say a lot more. And I got to make a lot of new memories with my new friends. I made like five new friends.”
Sarabelle has some advice for any students who want to take part in the science fair process.
“Just try your hardest, and even if you’re not confident, just act confident. You’ll make it. Fake it until you make it. Just … good luck, it’s worth it.”
The Manitoba First Nations School System (MFNSS) recently partnered with the Manitoba School Esports Association (MSEA) to host the first annual Scholastic Esports Expo on May 25 and 26! Esports is a positive step for students in MFNSS, as it allows them to engage in competitive gaming while promoting positive outcomes regarding their academic and personal development.
One of the significant benefits of esports for students is the development of critical thinking skills. In esports, players must make quick decisions and strategic choices in real time, requiring them to analyze and respond to constantly changing situations. This thinking is highly transferable to other areas of their academic and personal lives, such as problem-solving and decision-making.
Furthermore, scholastic esports can provide a sense of community and connectedness for students who may have yet to find this through traditional sports or other academic activities. In the case of Fox Lake School and George Saunders Memorial School (George Saunders), two of our most remote and isolated First Nations, competing in scholastic esports through the Manitoba School Esports Association allows students to compete with different schools and regions across Manitoba, promoting socialization and networking opportunities not previously available. Fox Lake School notes that attitudes towards school and attendance in some youths have improved, resulting from a must-attend school policy initiated to participate in esports as an extra-curricular activity.
Coach Dallas Flett-Wapash of Fox Lake School added, “Esports has brought our community together. The Band Council is considering donating esports jerseys; our students are excited to come to school and play together as a team. We (adults) are excited to watch them compete and come out of their shells, be themselves. It’s great.” Flett-Wapash even hosted a community night of his own inspired by esports. “We used the video game Family Feud to host a community night on the Nintendo Switch in the school gym for everyone. It was a blast. The power of video games is bringing our people closer together; who knew.”
Teamwork and Reconciliation through the Rocket League
The George Saunders Niskak (Cree for “Goose”) had an equally exciting inauguration into the world of esports this season. In April 2023, George Saunders participated in Rocket League, a game where a team of three players used race cars to put a giant soccer ball in a net. Sounds easy, right? That is not the case. It takes impeccable teamwork, collaboration, and communication, not to mention hours of practice, to be successful at this game. Students at George Saunders did just that, yet no one knew how good these kids were.
Initially, George Saunders was placed in the “A” division with over 18 teams across Manitoba competing in April in the MSEA’s Rocket League season. Teams were seeded based on prior performance; George Saunders had no reference point but quickly dominated the “A” division in Middle Years and was asked to level up to the “AA” division.
The students in George Saunders swiftly adapted and managed to place fourth in regular season play, securing them a playoff spot. However, their success did not end there! The George Saunders Niskak finished second overall in the province of Manitoba in the AA division for Middle Years! Congratulations to Sean Laliberty, Liam Saunders, Christopher James, Treyton Beardy, and Darian Saunders on their fantastic finish! Thanks to the coaches, Jonypher Molejon and Benjamin Sinclair, for their support.
Aside from these kids at George Saunders bringing awareness to their First Nation and putting York Landing on the map via esports, they are also making waves with the developers of Rocket League. Users must ensure that explicit language is not used when entering player and team names into Rocket League’s online system. When the commissioner of the Middle Years in MSEA input the team’s name “George Saunders Niskak” into the plan for the playoff bracket, Rocket League decided to “ban” the team name, thinking it was inappropriate. The system does not recognize Cree, or any Indigenous language, which needs to change. MFNSS and the Manitoba School Esports Association will contact Rocket League to rectify this oversight for speakers of Cree and other Indigenous languages in Manitoba— one small step towards truth and reconciliation. Every step counts.
In addition to the previously stated benefits of esports, esports can also be used to promote positive attitudes toward Indigenous identity and culture. One way to do this is by incorporating cultural elements into esports tournaments and events.
First Nations Cultures Incorporated in Minecraft
For example, MFNSS has facilitated game-based learning activities, blended with esports via Minecraft Education, that motivate students to celebrate Indigenous languages, traditions, and artwork. Mahpiya Hdega School (Dakota Plains) recently participated in a design challenge requiring teams of students to cooperatively design an esports logo for their school based on meaningful representations and symbols of Dakota culture. Furthermore, many of our MFNSS First Nations have participated in our Minecraft Education “First Nations Community Challenge,” requiring teams of students to build a First Nation inclusive of respect, relevance, reciprocity, and responsibility. Students’ pride and self-confidence flourish in the classroom with the opportunity to bring background knowledge, land-based education, and distinct cultural context to these design challenges.
The Seven Teachings in First Nations culture is an essential foundation of Traditional Knowledge and wisdom. While esports may seem like an unlikely place to find these teachings, they can be represented in several ways within the world of competitive gaming.
LOVE AND RESPECT: One-way love and respect are represented in esports is through developing positive relationships between players and teams. While competition can often be intense and cutthroat, players who respect their opponents, teammates, and coaches can foster a more positive and supportive community. Demonstrating the values of love and respect in esports can lead to a healthier and more fulfilling experience for all involved.
HONESTY: Honesty is essential in any competitive setting, and esports is no exception. Honesty is represented in esports through fair play, rule-following, and integrity. Cheating or dishonesty can be grounds for disqualification or loss of rank, which promotes a culture of fairness and honesty within the esport community.
COURAGE: Courage is essential for anyone engaging in competitive activities, and esports is no different. Players must show courage in the face of defeat or difficult challenges and make strategic decisions during gameplay. Courageous players who take risks and try new strategies can often come out on top.
WISDOM: Wisdom is represented in esports through strategic thinking, adaptability, and experience. Successful esports players have often gained knowledge through experience, learning from past mistakes, and honing their skills. Wisdom is also demonstrated through thinking critically and making intelligent decisions under pressure.
HUMILITY: Humility is an essential value in First Nations culture and can also be seen in esports. Players who exhibit humility are often more approachable and easier to work with, leading to stronger relationships with their teammates and coaches. Humility
also fosters a sense of self-awareness that can help players identify areas where they can improve and grow.
TRUTH: Finally, truth is an essential value in any community, and it is represented in esports through transparency and accountability. Players who are truthful and transparent in their actions and communications can build trust with their teammates and coaches, leading to stronger relationships and more effective teamwork.
New Esports Teams with Focus on First Nations Languages and Identities
MFNSS is set to develop esports teams across our school system centered around First Nations cultures and languages in the 2023–2024 school year. When competing in esports events or virtual seasons with the Manitoba School Esports Association, First Nations youth can promote pride and accomplishment in their distinct First Nations identity while fostering critical thinking and teamwork skills. The partnership between MFNSS and MSEA, and the participation of Fox Lake School and George Saunders Memorial School, is a positive step towards promoting scholastic esports as a healthy educational activity in Manitoba, fostering positive attitudes towards First Nations identity and culture.
Given its significant growth and impact on the global sports industry, Canada should consider recognizing esports as a legitimate sport, as many countries worldwide have already done, or risk falling behind an industry that continues to flourish and attract a massive and diverse following of players and fans alike.
In 1969, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and the Minister of Indian Affairs, Jean Chretien, unveiled a policy paper that suggested Canada would end the special legal relationship it had with First Nations peoples, including the dismantling of the Indian Act. For First Nations, while the Indian Act was a racist piece of Canadian legislation, it did recognize their separate history and their relationship with the land Canada sat on. The changes within the “White Paper” meant that First Nations would never be treated like Europeans treat themselves in their homelands. Instead, First Nations would be treated as individuals who immigrated to either the English or French parts of Canada. This was unacceptable for First Nations.
The announcement of the “White Paper” gave First Nations across the country something to stand up against. The National Indian Brotherhood was founded in 1970, and it immediately presented the “Red Paper” written by Cree leader Harold Cardinal. In Manitoba, the Manitoba Indian Brotherhood produced Wahbung: Our Tomor- rows in response to Trudeau’s suggested changes. The main assertion within Wah-bung was that First Nations had a right to self-determination.
Elder Ross was inspired by the unity she saw as First Nations in Manitoba and across the country began to protest, push back, and propose new ways of doing things that put First Nations people at the centre of their own governance and education.
“Wahbung was created by all the Chiefs back in the day when the association was called the Manitoba Indian Brotherhood,” Knowledge Keeper Arthurson says. “All the Chiefs were involved, and many educators were also involved in responding to that “White Paper.” And the document that came out was Wahbung. The people said we want control of our lives. We want control of our education system. We want to teach our traditional ways of living. We want to teach our languages. We want First Nations educators.”
Within Wahbung, the Chiefs of Manitoba stated: Education as a program of government has fallen tragically short of its objectives of Indian advancement. As a tool to develop the capability to participate equally with the rest of society, the education process has been notably narrow in its concept and rigid in its approach. The time has come for a drastic change in the orientation of education in order to pursue a program of education in its broadest context, a program designed to include all aspects of the community so as to ensure that all people have adequate opportunities to improve their knowledge and expand their options. The provision in the treaties for schools on reserves must be interpreted in a present context to mean comprehensive education for Indian people.
In the early 70s, Knowledge Keeper Arthurson was a teacher, trying to put her beliefs about educating First Nation students into action. But she remembers the leadership within Manitoba coming together and standing behind Wahbung.
“When it came to Wahbung, what I remember is that we as First Nation people have a right, we have a right to teach our children what they should learn,” Knowledge Keeper Arthurson says. “And the second part of that was, we have the responsibility to do so. That was the big takeaway I got from Wahbung. They made a strong statement that we have a right to teach our children what they need to learn, and we have a responsibility.”
Replanting the Seeds of First Nations Control of First Nations Education
Due to the protests and political pressure, the “White Paper” was withdrawn; however, the government continued to explore ways to redefine Canada’s relationship with First Nations. This process was again
impacted by the differing relationships First Nations had with the federal government, its departments, and the province they were in. This led to a hodgepodge of situations across the country, from the absorption of residential schools into a new Indian Affairs schools system to schools being folded into provincial systems, to First Nations taking over a few schools, mostly under the direction of the federal government and forced to use the provincial curriculum.
In the late 1980s, the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) (formerly the National Indian Brotherhood) did a study on the situation experienced by First Nations across the country, including in the area of education. This included a look at the different education issues, shortfalls, and solutions that had been found.
It was at this time that Knowledge Keeper Arthurson moved from behind the desk in the classroom to involvement in political and policy push for First Nations control of First Nations education. She was hired by the Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs (AMC) (formerly the Manitoba Indian Brotherhood) to carry out a similar study, including a comprehensive community consultation on the subject of education with First Nations throughout the province.
“Grand Chief Phil Fontaine asked me to look at all the documents and the position papers and the proposals that had been written in Manitoba on First Nation education. The late Shirley Fontaine was hired to help me carry out the community consultations. It was an interesting experience. We went throughout the province, and we heard the complaints, concerns, and recommendations of First Nation leadership and families on the subject of education,” Knowledge Keeper Arthurson says.
Unfortunately, the previous 20 years of a scatter-shot philosophy for education on the part of Canada resulted in little forward movement. The system was still, in- credibly underfunded, which made it impossible to resolve long-standing concerns, create equality with the Canadian student experience, or deal with new demands due to changes in technology, the environment, and the economy.
Knowledge Keeper Arthurson says, “What I found was all the same issues were there. Everything that First Nations had been raising in terms of what was wrong with education, and what needed to change 20 years earlier, was still there. With the exception of two things: by starting local control, now, they had labor issues that they never had to deal with before, because Indian Affairs did that. And now, they had technical issues because they had to start using computers.”
The work on education in the late 1980s led to the creation of the Framework Agreement on Indian Education in Manitoba, which was signed in 1990 and included the concerns collected from all the First Nations in Manitoba. The push for better education and the action of First Nation political leaders led to a greater feeling of unity throughout the province. Across Cana- da, the Chiefs from Manitoba were seen as leading the way in education for First Nations children and youth. Elder Ross remembers that time as one of the First Nations people coming together.
“For the Framework Agreement all the communities were involved,” she says. “Hundreds of people were involved. This really woke everyone up and they wanted to be involved. And they put forth their wishes of what should be in the Framework Agreement. They wanted equitable funding. They wanted to teach their languages again. Almost every time they had the chance to ask, they asked to teach their languages, their traditional ways.”
The Political Push for First Nations Control of First Nations Education
The relationship be- tween First Nations and Canada was not working on a number of levels, and
the legal and political powers of First Nations were increasing across the country. This push for change was, in no small part, motivated by the many tragedies that were lived out by First Nations men and women, living in or visiting Canadian cities or towns. In Manitoba, the long-run-resolved murder of Helen Betty Osborne and the police-shooting death of J.J. Harper led to the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry, which delivered a report in 1991. At the federal level, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal People (RCAP) was created in 1991. RCAP was commissioned to investigate the relationship between Canada and First Nations. RCAP’s report was delivered in 1996. Both the inquiry and the commission led to recommendations, which included changes that impacted the delivery of First Nations education and the need to address the purposeful erosion of First Nations languages and cultures.
The political push by First Nations leadership within Manitoba by Chiefs at the community level, by AMC, and within AFN led to further discussions with Canada on a new framework for the relationship between the levels of Canadian government and First Nations within Manitoba, and what that would look like. These talks led to the Framework Agreement Initiative (FAI) in 1994. The FAI was a multi-year project that would see First Nations discussing and investigating how they wanted to define and maintain relations, not only between First Nations and Canada, but also among themselves, as they organized into groups that could, possibly, share laws, governance systems, and resources. Due to the importance of future generations to First Nations, this discussion and funding flowed into the area of education and spurred thinking on the creation of a First Nations-controlled, accredited, and supported education system that produced its own teachers and staff, as well as supported and reinvigorated local languages and cultures.
Meanwhile, at the federal level, it took two years for the government to respond to RCAP’s report. In 1998, the government brought in the Gathering Strength Initiative, which they described as, “a long-term, broad-based policy approach designed to increase the quality of life of Aboriginal people and to promote self-sufficiency.”
Elder Ross said that First Nations did not feel they were consulted on Gathering Strength and, while Canada was acting on RCAP’s report, First Nations perceived Canada as acting on only those recommendations that spoke to its priorities.
“The name, Gathering Strength, didn’t come from the Indigenous people. It came from the government,” Elder Ross said. “But we picked up on that and we wanted to strengthen our First Nations schools. And we did that, and we were successful. It was almost like we turned the tables around.”
The resistance by First Nations caused the government to realize that consultation with First Nations as equal partners in the process was the only way to create forward movement and systems that effectively met the needs of the extremely varied First Nations across the country.
Throughout 1998, First Nations leadership and Education Directors within Manitoba held numerous meetings, coming together at their own cost, to create a better understanding of immediate concerns and how to reach the goals outlined within their Education Framework Agreement.
“The Gathering Strength discussion paper, what the government put out for First Nations, did not have much weight, it was only piece-meal funding for all First Nations,” Elder Ross recalls. “But in Manitoba, the First Nations came together. They said we are not going to accept this funding now, like individually. We are going to come together and create a system because we want those services that we were never able to get in our schools. We want more than what this Gathering Strength is going to give us.”
The funding from Gathering Strength was woefully short of what was needed to create a First Nations-controlled education system or create parity of funding with provincial schools. However, it was enough for a start.
Knowledge Keeper Arthurson says First Nations Education Directors soon realized the funding could also be more effective if it was shared.
“After Gathering Strength, the government came up with $800,000 as a regional allocation for Manitoba. The $800,000 was supposed to spread to all the First Nation communities to share for education,” Knowledge Keep- er Arthurson says. “I think some of those communities were allocated, you know, a few thousand dollars, which was not going to do anything for anyone. So, the first decision was made to, well, let’s work collectively. Let’s look at economies of scale, let’s look at sharing our resources, and let’s purchase things together, so we pay less. All those types of really good ideas started to surface and simmer, and they decided to set up a resource centre and start looking at hiring staff to work together to deliver these types of services and help our communities that couldn’t really afford it on their own.”
The Creation of the Manitoba First Nations Education Resource Centre.
In December 1998, due to a push from First Nations Education Directors and through a resolution of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, First Nations leadership within Manitoba created the Manitoba First Nations Education Resource Centre (the Resource Centre). The hope was that the meager seed money could be pooled within the Resource Centre, which would then become a venue for First Nations to access services, specialists, and resources for their schools and students. AMC established the Resource Centre to provide coordinated second and third-level education services to First Nations schools in Manitoba.
Knowledge Keeper Arthurson says the creation of the Resource Centre is a modern expression of traditional philosophies surrounding the sharing of resources and not taking more than your due. She says it was very uplifting to hear the larger communities that could secure a larger per capita share of the funding decisions to help the smaller First Nations, whose amounts would leave them with little to make change.
“When you think about how our communities survived out on the land, how they had to work together, to bring in the harvest and gather enough food to survive for the winter,” Knowledge Keeper Arthurson explains. “To be able to live together in harmony, without getting into the conflict that can happen when in close proximity. Collective thought, collective action, and harmony are very much First Nations teaching. It carries on and can be used, very effectively, in building and working together. So, you take your resources, you share them, and then you end up with more.”
The Resource Centre was asked to provide services and also to work towards the creation of a First Nations school board and the ability to develop and produce teaching materials that are specific to each First Nations language and culture within Manitoba. However, in its beginnings, the Resource Centre was a handful of educators, experts, technicians, and staff dedicated to improving First Nations’ control over First Nations education.
The trailblazing and high professional standards of the Resource Centre’s early staff quickly brought
it to the attention of Canadian and First Nation leaders, and it soon received a commitment for long-term funding. This commitment and funding were further solidified in March 2000, when an agreement was made for multi-year funding based on a five-year strategic plan.
While First Nations within Manitoba now had better tools to work towards the goal of First Nations control of First Nations education, the funding per student, the process of securing funding, and the use of nominal rolls were all significant challenges to parity with the Canadian educational experience. The nominal roll system involves counting students on particular days to define funding. If children are absent on the days of the counts, they will continue to be educated without the school having the proper funds to support them.
While the Resource Centre was being created and growing, many First Nation students were still within the provincial and federal system, which didn’t share the goals of First Nations control of First Nations education or the reinvigorating of First Nations languages and cultures.
Knowledge Keeper Arthurson says provincial schools fail because they are not focused on the real needs of First Nation students.
“One of the biggest reasons why provincial school divisions and schools fail is because they are teaching our children to be someone else,” Knowledge Keeper Arthurson says. “Not to be proud of who they are, not to recognize that they have their own rich heritage. The school itself doesn’t recognize these kids have a rich heritage. Our people have to learn to be proud of who they are. It has been taken away through the residential schools and through everything that has happened since colonization.”
A Tug of War—First Nations Education As a Political Football
As First Nations’ demands for self-governance, control of education, and proper government funding and services grew, the rising financial and human resources needed by the Canadian government to meet these demands resulted in greater public scrutiny and the costs used as a negative talking point within Canadian politics.
In 1996, the same year the RCAP report was released, the Canadian government, under Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin, imposed a two per cent cap on increases in First Nations education. This impediment to the growth of First Nations education was maintained by all Canadian political parties for the next 19 years. Throughout the decade of 2000–2010, the progress towards First Nations control of First Nations education was often defined by the back-and-forth of Canadian politics.
In April 2000, the auditor general delivered a report that looked at First Nations education at both the community and post-secondary levels. Using the number of post-secondary graduations as a baseline, the auditor general found First Nations significantly lagged behind Canadians when it came to successful outcomes in education. The recommendations within the auditor general’s “2000 Annual Report” led to the Onward to Excellence strategy in 2001.
In 2004, Canada’s auditor general once again looked at Indigenous education and Indian and Northern Affairs Canada’s progress on the recommendations from April 2000. While some progress was reported, many of the same problems persisted. Throughout this time, the Martin government maintained the two per cent cap on First Nations education, even though its funding was still far behind other Canadian education funding. Within Manitoba, in 2004–2005, First Nations political efforts, as well as the work of the Resource Centre and Education Directors, brought Canada to the table to discuss an education plan that would lead to greater curriculum development, the expansion of First Nation resources—including libraries—and greater access to technology for administration and teaching.
Starting in 2004, AFN and the Government of Canada held round-table discussions on improving the quality of life for First Nations, including talks on governance and education. After a year, Prime Minister Paul Martin proposed an agreement that came to be known as the Kelowna Accord, which included $1.8 billion for First Nations education. Soon after, the Liberal government fell and, in 2006, a new prime minister, Stephen Harper, was elected to a minority government. While the Kelowna Accord passed in the House of Commons in 2007, the Liberal defeat ensured it would be defined by the Conservative government which stated it shared the same goals but not the same commitment to the funding or strategy. Prime Minister Stephen Harper secured a ruling that called the Kelowna Accord non-binding.
As soon as the Conservatives had control of the government, the Liberals began to use Indigenous education as a small political hammer. They insisted the fall of the Kelowna Accord was evidence of Conservative apathy for the goal of improving Indigenous lives. In 2008, following the residential school apology, the Commission for Truth and Reconciliation (TRC) began seven years of listening to residential school survivors and their experiences. However, given any political payoff from the TRC was uncertain and years away, the Harper government was looking for another win in the “Indigenous” column and asked for proposals and suggestions on Indigenous education.
Throughout this time, First Nations in Manitoba had been pushing, using the Resource Centre and other means, for better education funding and the expansion of First Nations education. This work led, in 2006, to the creation and funding of a System Working Group that worked on researching and developing further improvements to education, and the funding of the Education Directors position as a full-time role within the First Nations themselves. In 2008, further funding increases were announced after MFNERC’s “Education in Transformation” proposal.
After an election held in Vancouver in 2009, the Chiefs elected education expert Shawn Atleo as National Chief and gave him the mandate to secure a new agreement on education from Canada. Within the AFN system, the election of a National Chief with experience in a particular area signifies the priority the Chiefs place on that issue or concern within their communities. Shortly after the election of National Chief Atleo, AFN rereleased a report that was originally published in 1972, called “First Nation Control of First Nation Education.” At this time, in Manitoba, AMC and the Resource Centre worked on a concept paper that pro- posed the creation of regional education systems that would bring First Nations control and resource sharing closer to the community level. The political movement on Indigenous issues, and the growing concerns of Canada regarding employment and the retirement of the Baby Boomer generation from the workforce, resulted in Canada and AFN, under National Chief Shawn Atleo, creating a national panel to carry out regional sessions on education. This resulted in a report called “Nurturing the Learning Spirit of First Nations Students” that promised to put First Nations children and accountability at the center of reform. The report recommended the co-creation of legislation on First Nations education, a national commission, adequate funding, and a commitment to facilitate and support First Nations education through regional organizations.
In May 2011, a Winnipeg Free Press article on the Ro- seau River Anishinaabe First Nation’s (RRAFN) Ginew School blamed its poor quality of education on local leaders. Roseau River’s Chief, Terry Nelson, threatened the closure of the school due to the quality of education that he felt was caused by Canada’s chronic underfunding and lack of proper support for First Nations education. In the resulting discussions between Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC) and RRAFN, the Resource Centre was brought in to look at ways to address and resolve the issue with the hope of keeping the school open. These efforts led to a proposal submission, approved by AANDC and RRAFN, that would see a partnership agreement with the Resource Centre as a three-year pilot project.
In 2012, the Harper government tabled legislation called the First Nations Education Act (FNEA) that it said flowed from a collaboration with AFN and National Chief Shawn Atleo. For a number of reasons— from legitimate concerns about the legislation to the political ambitions of individuals to the fact the legislation was crafted by a political party that has a bad reputation with First Nations— the FNEA inspired a strong backlash from First Nations leadership and education professionals across the country.
Of course, there were also numerous parties, First Nations and Canadian, that saw the FNEA as a starting point for First Nations education, which included $1.9 billion of much need funding for First Nations schools and systems. In Manitoba, under Grand Chief Derrick Nepinak, AMC came out strongly against the Canadian legislation, fearing it infringed on Treaty Rights, it would erode First Nations’ control of First Nations education, and that it might supersede previous arrangements between Canada and First Nations in Manitoba. Due to the backlash, in 2014, the FNEA legislation, now called, the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act, was rejected by the AFN’s Chiefs-in-Assembly, which basically resulted in the death of the bill. The conflict also resulted in the resignation of National Chief Atleo, who hoped his leaving would reduce tension within the organization. As Atleo departed, he encouraged First Nations to continue to pursue the goal of First Nations control of First Nations education.
Also occurring during late 2013 and early 2014, at the request of Chiefs, the Resource Centre went out to various First Nations to provide an overview of the school division concept, now referred to as the Partnership Transition Initiative (PTI). This proposal would see the creation of a First Nations school division, administered by the Resource Centre. Over 20 First Nations requested a presentation resulting in 10 potential partners to start the proposed school division.
The Trudeau Years: Promise and Persuasion
In 2015, Justin Trudeau was elected as prime minister of Canada. Soon after, he was quoted as saying, “No relationship is more important to Canada than the relationship with Indigenous Peoples.” Since that time, the Trudeau government has promised much and de- livered some.
Although the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act was never enacted, the topic of First Nation education was still top of mind for First Nations and those Canadians aware of the country’s looming employment concerns. First Nations found a willing partner for reform in Prime Minister Trudeau, if not in the departments that held the purse strings.
In the same month, Trudeau was elected, the TRC delivered its report on the experiences of residential schools, and how to heal from that negative history. The TRC spent six years traveling to all parts of Canada and heard from more than 6,500 witnesses- es. The TRC also hosted seven national events across Canada to engage the Canadian public, educate people about the history and legacy of the residential school system, and share and honour the experiences of former students and their families. The recent TRC report meant many people expected the new prime minister to address the Commission’s recommendations, many of them on the subject of education.
In the few years since the issue on the Roseau River First Nation was resolved, in part, with an addition to their education funding, numerous First Nations who witnessed this funding bump insisted they deserved an increase as a matter of equality. At this time, all the hard work by the Resource Centre and others on the Partnership Transition Initiative (PTI) paid off as the groundwork for a new First Nations school division came to fruition.
In December 2016, the Resource Centre, First Nations leaders, and Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) (now Indigenous Services Canada, ISC), signed Education Governance and Delegation Agreements, authorizing the brand-new Manitoba First Nations School System (MFNSS) to provide educational programming and enhanced supports to First Nations schools.
Fulfilling the vision of First Nation’s leadership to take back control of First Nations education, MFNSS assumed responsibility for administering and managing elementary and secondary education pro- grams and services for 10 First Nations, with more than 2000 students, in July 2017.
The new school system was designed for First Nations by First Nations. The
Resource Centre, in partnership with First Nations, established MFNSS to support student, staff, and school administration, consistent with a mandate from First Nations leaders through the AMC. While respecting First Nations control and Treaty and Inherent Rights, MFNSS was mandated to support schools to improve the quality of education, improve academic standards, and increase student outcomes, including retention, completion, and graduation rates.
Since that time, both the Resource Centre and MFNSS have continued to grow. This growth includes evolving services to support First Nations in teaching languages and cultures. Two newly organized departments within the Resource Centre have increased efforts in language revitalization and support, control, and care of specialized services for students. These two departments are Languages and Cultures and Inclusive Education Services.
The Languages and Cultures department provides in-school and First Nations services in all school subject areas, including First Nations languages, outdoor education, and cultural-based activities. In addition, the department is developing instructional resources to support the teaching of languages and cultures in this territory’s five First Nations languages. Assisting with the development is a publishing team that completes the graphic design, editing, and printing of all resources created.
The Inclusive Education Services department provides direct, one-on-one (first level), specialized services for students with additional support needs in First Nations schools. The care and oversight of the range of services are important to ensuring students receive quality services. An emphasis is placed on providing services from a First Nations approach and not from Westernized ideologies.
The Future of First Nations Education
Due to the efforts of First Nations leadership within Manitoba and organizations like the Resource Centre, as well as the constant pressure from the First Nations grassroots families who want the best for their future generations, First Nations control of First Nations education has taken hold and continues to grow.
Now retired, Elder Ross says she sees a future where First Nations are accrediting their own teachers and have complete control of their children’s education. She says she has always been honored to be working for First Nations families and students.
“I want to see a system of our own, not only what we have right now, we want total control,” Elder Ross says. “We even talked about a First Nations Ministry of Education. Like, why do we get accreditation from the province? Can’t we do that by ourselves? I hope we’ll be able to go that way and accredit our own teachers. We are now able to offer training to First Nations people that work in the schools: educational assistants, resource teachers, and other specialists in speech and language. And recently, more training is offered for staff attaining their master’s degrees and PhDs. There have been many milestones on this journey.”
Also retired, Knowledge Keeper Arthurson says that even though she has witnessed a lot of struggles in the fight for First Nations’ control of education, she is certain the future is positive. She is proud of the work that First Nation leaders, families, and the Resource Centre have accomplished.
“I always think things are looking up, given where we were and how far we have come,” Knowledge Keeper Arthurson says. “We need to acknowledge the number of people, many of whom we have lost now, who have put all their passion into building First Nations education systems, into correcting the wrongs that have been done. Those who worked to make First Nations stronger, so they were able to deliver an education system to their children in spite of the lack of money. Despite always having to do a better job, or 10 times more, with less money than mainstream schools get. We need to acknowledge all those people that went on before us, and the passion they put into doing this work, and we have lost so many of them. I was honored to work with many of them, as well as the ones that are still here. Thank you for the opportunity and thank you for all you’ve done for First Nations children and youth.”
In the beginning, the Creator gifted First Nations peoples with children, thereby giving them the right and responsibility to teach their future generations. Despite many, many challenges, the First Nations within Manitoba, their leadership, and their families have worked hard to meet and maintain these Creator-given responsibilities and make the best future possible for the next seven generations.
In the beginning, the Creator gifted First Nations peoples with children, thereby giving them the right and responsibility to teach their future generations lessons learned from their experiences on the land.
The path of First Nations education in what is now known as Manitoba is a long and interesting story, which begins with the thousands and thousands of years when First Nations had full control of their children and their lives. The knowledge needed to live in the sometimes-harsh environment of these lands was deep, extensive, intricate, and crucial in both the good times and in the times of scarce resources.
During this time, children learned through oral teachings and a learn-to-do-by-doing philosophy that saw children following and watching the older generations carry out the tasks of living. Other learning tools in- included maps, ceremonies, memory prompts, songs, and birchbark or hide scrolls containing symbols. Historical locations were used as teaching tools, as well as the constant repetition of lessons and stories from the Elders, family, and visitors.
Elder Rebecca Ross says, for First Nations families, teaching their children how to create a good life was an expression of love. When it was safe, the children stayed with their teachers to watch their role models work, chat, and carry out the activities of the day.
“When the parents, the grandparents, were out there on the land, they took the children. They experienced and saw how their parents and grandparents did things. They were right beside them, even the little babies were right there too,” Elder Ross says. “In the warmer weather, let’s say in the spring, summertime, and fall, the land was the classroom. In the wintertime, families lived together. And they shared the teaching of the children. They were actively involved, even the extended family.”
Many Elders say that the lessons of the Creator are found in the land. As people collect the resources for survival (food, shelter, clothing) from the landscape around them, they develop a lifestyle. After several generations, that lifestyle, and the events and stories that occur within the people and with the surrounding peoples, become their culture and history.
This link to the land makes a people and culture “Indigenous.”
It is also the reason why First Nations peoples are not surprised that people from different landscapes have learned different lessons. In this worldview, given the expansiveness of the Creator and the many varied landscapes of Creation, it’s not surprising that people who live on a coast may have different beliefs, lifestyles, worldviews, and values than those who live beside a volcano or on the prairie or in the deep forest. Indigenous cultures and societies are defined by the landscapes they live in. This meant that First Nations education was directly linked to their land. It was their workbook, history book, and blackboard.
Elder Ross says that First Nations teachings were holistic to ensure future generations had all the tools they needed for survival.
Knowledge Keeper Virginia Arthurson, a long-time educator, has done much to contribute to the growth of First Nations education on these lands. She is grateful to have experienced traditional teaching systems when she was out on the land with her family as a young girl. “I was one of the lucky ones. I experienced a lot of that upbringing, as we were being raised in Misipawistik. As children, we were taken out on the land to learn how to do these things. If our family was gathering roots or picking berries, we were watching what was going on, and being able to see what the adults were doing, hearing them interact in the language, just basically being there with the rest of the group,” Knowledge Keeper Arthurson says. “A lot of that was the seeing, the hearing, the listening, the watching, and then practicing how to do things, learning through play how to do things that their adults were doing. Many young ladies will remember making little black bannocks. You would practice making a bannock with your mom or your grandma and play with it until it was black. But grandma would still cook it.”
Knowledge Keeper Arthurson believes that student assessments during this time were more stringent as well as more holistic, as they had to consider not only the survival of the individual but the survival of the group. When the student became a working adult, the effectiveness and skill of their contributions became vital to the whole.
“They mastered those skills and that’s when they were recognized as ready to go on to the next level. Schools today, they do a lot of social passing. Kids go on to the next Grade whether they are ready or not. Our way of doing things was mastery, taking in those lessons and understandings so that when you got through those lessons you already had a deep understanding of what was being taught, the philosophy of what was being taught, and the skills to carry out the necessary tasks,” Knowledge Keeper Arthurson says.
An alteration of First Nations education occurred after contact with Europeans and their goods. As the access to metal pots, knives, and other trade stuff became more dependable, the lessons surrounding the comparable First Nations technologies eroded. For example, consistent access to metal pots meant lessons surrounding birchbark pot-making was not as vital. Knowledge Keeper Arthurson says First Nations people knew a good thing when they saw it. “Our people evolve. Learning evolves. Our people knew when they saw a good thing. Why would you run around using a bow and arrow? if you have the advantage
of getting a gun? So, one of the things that changed our way of life and our education systems, learning how to do things, was the change in the economy when fur trade goods began to come in. Just being able to survive in an easier manner. When you had better tools to use, education changed.”
First Nations experienced the arrival of European explorers, then traders, then missionaries, and finally government representatives. It was at this time that many First Nations, familiar with the idea of a treaty due to the conflicts, trade, and relations with their Indigenous neighbors from different cultures, began to send letters to Ottawa, petitioning Canada for a mutually beneficial agreement. When the making of the Numbered Treaties started in 1871, the Chiefs of the day had specific requests, and it became obvious that they had their future generations in mind.
Elder Ross says that hundreds of years of trading with and witnessing Europeans and then Canadians meant that First Nations had an idea of what they agreed with in European cultures and what they didn’t see as productive or effective within their environment and society.
“What they wanted was to use some of the tools of the white man, but they still wanted to maintain their traditional ways of life. They still wanted to have their traditional ways of educating their children. And to maintain their languages, their ceremonies, and their songs. And all those things that they had prior to contact,” Elder Ross says.
Elder Ross says First Nations did not view the treaties as giving up anything, but rather as agreements to mutually share in the benefits of the land. “They asked for all those things they had before contact—their economic system, their education system, their health system, and their laws. When Canada made the agreements with First Nations people, they were agreements between the two nations, and these agreements are what our Elders to- day call Eternal Law. It’s a law that means forever and ever, as long as the sun shines, the grass grows, and the waters flow. And today, all these three things are very much alive, so the treaties are very much alive.”
While First Nations saw that settlers had much to teach, there was also much they saw as not compatible with their worldview. For example, First Nations were often bothered by the way European individuals often valued themselves over the collective good of their people. First Nations are a collective culture and society, and they wanted their children to maintain the wider viewpoint.
Knowledge Keeper Arthurson says First Nations want- ed to take the best from what they saw, but also keep the best in their cultures, which included the etiquette, values, philosophies, and skills that kept them alive in a harsh environment.
“Of course, they wanted them to keep them. They also held values, sharing, and caring for each other, being kind to each other—all those things that would build harmony in a community. We learned a lot of values that maintained harmony and strength in our communities. Our people knew that lifestyle and they wanted their children to learn that. They knew the philosophy and the teachings were contained in the language. The lessons given to us by the Creator were contained in our language.”
Knowledge Keeper Arthurson says that when the Chiefs asked for access to European knowledge, they recognized the idea of elementary-level learning as compared to expert-level learning. For example, First Nations Chiefs were not asking to just learn how to shoot a gun, but also the specialized, expert knowledge that is needed to make a gun. They recognized that there were some higher levels of learning within European cultures, and they wanted access to all of it in a way that allowed them to take what was best for them and leave the rest. “If I remember correctly, they wanted an education system much like the Queen Mother was providing for her children. For me and First Nations people that meant lifelong learning. We’ve had pretty strong pro-tests when Canada stated that post-secondary education is not a Treaty Right because it goes beyond Grade 12. Our belief is that education is lifelong, so when you say you want the same level that the Queen provides her children, it means lifelong,” Knowledge Keeper Arthurson says.
Imposition of Indian Act, Indian Agents, and Residential Schools
While First Nations saw the treaty-making as an agreement to share, for mutual benefit, the knowledge and resources that each treaty party had, Canada saw the treaty signing as a surrender of land and First Nations agreeing to come under the power of the Canadian government. The Indian Act was passed shortly after the Numbered Treaty process started, which gave Canadian bureaucrats the authority to impose Canadian perspectives on the treaties. Indian agents formed the front line of the enforcement of the Indian Act and the desire to control First Nations and destroy their ability to act as groups. Residential schools and holding on to First Nations children provided the leverage that gave the Indian agents their power.
Elder Ross says it was the desire to control the land and the people that was the real goal of Indian agents and the schools. That meant breaking the link within First Nations families, which then destroyed the thread of cultural teachings.
“I’ll mention my grandfather. My grandfather’s sons went, his children, his daughters, all went to residential school,” Elder Ross says. “The residential school was down the street, and his home was near. So, my grandfather traded with the residential school for food, and he gave them fish. And he had his sons there, and when he wanted to see his son, when he took his fish, he couldn’t find his son, because he was out there in the bush working. And when his son came out, he was dressed in rags. And when the son asked my grandfather, ‘Can I go home with you?’ the response was, ‘Oh no, you are not going home.’ That’s the way it was. That’s the sad part.
Families were broken up.” Elder Ross says that this disconnection from family is the main reason for the many social issues on First Nations today. The shadow of residential schools and the break in the teaching of First Nations family values have hampered later generations, survivors, and their children when it comes to being good parents. “The bond they had with their children was taken away. Even when the children were five and six, they were still taken away, so they lost that relationship with their children. They couldn’t parent their children. They couldn’t love their children. And that’s the intergenerational impact that’s affecting us all as First Nations people.”
In his 1905 and 1906 reports, the Chief medical officer for Indian Affairs, Peter Bryce, found that residential school students were dying at a high rate due to tuberculosis, and he described the schools as “tuberculosis factories.” Not only were the conditions disease prone and unsanitary, Bryce questioned how much the schools were actually teaching. At the time, most teachers in the schools had no training and most students left the schools with little ability to read and write. These facts underline that residential schools were sources of leverage for the Indian agents and government as compared to a real and effective effort to educate.
Knowledge Keeper Arthurson says First Nations were herded on to reserves be- cause Canada wanted control of the land. To ensure future control, Canada also attacked First Nations worldviews, values, and laws. “So, they put kids in residential schools and started taking the kids away from the parents. And that is basically what the intent was—to kill the Indian in the child. They took the language; they severed the connection—that transmission of knowledge that went from great-grandparent to grandparent to parent to the child. And the biggest impact and intent of the residential school was to separate families.”
It should be noted, throughout much of this time, most rural and small-town Canadians were solving their education needs with close-to-home schoolhouses, usually with locally hired and qualified teachers.
WWIIandtheImpacton Residential Schools
Shortly after making the treaties, Canada passed a law that, in effect, prevented First Nations from hiring lawyers to address their concerns surrounding treaties and treaty implementation. This included specific claims involving shortfalls in land measurements and the failed delivery of promised farm tools and funding, but it also included the First Nations’ concerns regarding residential schools and Indian agents. This led to decades of ineffective education in the residential schools as well as oppressive social engineering on the part of Indian agents.
During World War II, First Nations, per capita, provided more soldiers for service than any other group in Canada. When these First Nations soldiers returned home, they carried new knowledge of how Europeans treated their own people in their own countries, and they had a better understanding of city-based economies, politics, and human rights. With this information, they immediately began to fight the oppressive systems that held First Nations back from defining their own futures.
Knowledge Keeper Arthurson says, “After the world wars and all that, our people were coming back, they were more knowledgeable. They learned a lot of things while they were out there fighting wars. You know, they brought back knowledge to the communities, and they were able to resist more. They began setting up First Nations political organizations at the local and national level.”
First Nations soldiers became leaders in their communities and then began to demand equal access to Canada’s economy, government services, and legal systems. Due to the lobbying of First Nations, the law that hampered First Nations from hiring lawyers to address their concerns was removed in the early 1950s. First Nations immediately started leveling cases that addressed land claims and other issues. By the mid-1970s, the Indi- agent system was largely dead, and the residential school system was in retreat.
The Children Come Home—The End of Residential Schools
Due to the size of Canada and the varied histories with Indigenous people from coast to coast to coast, the residential School System did not come to a hard end— nor did Canada’s desire to control and assimilate First Nations.
Elder Ross says, “The residential schools have ended, but there is still control by the government on our education systems. We didn’t have complete control of our education systems. But people started to say, let’s take control of our Indian education. It had not happened yet.”
She points out that the experience of residential schools left scars in First Nations families that have been passed down through the generations. Obviously, being raised by paid government employees is not the same as being raised by loving parents. The break in the thread of family teachings and values left generations of First Nations families without the tools that most get from the family experience.
“They put our ancestors, our grandparents, and our parents in residential schools, and they isolated them. They weren’t able to go home but once a year, in the summertime. Even if their home was down the river,
they were not allowed to go home. The Indian residential schools have not ended yet. It had a great impact on the children of those residential school survivors. Intergenerational effects of residential schools still continue to live,” Elder Ross says.
Due to the differing history and relations they had with Canada, First Nations were in different places when it came to their realization that the schools were ending, and what that might mean for the future.
In Manitoba, Knowledge Keeper Arthurson says, First Nations began to realize that the goal of First Nations control of First Nations education had just peeked up over the horizon.
“I don’t think they thought much of residential schools dying other than the kids were coming home,” Knowledge Keeper Arthurson says. “They wanted their kids at home. Having their children taken away inspired a strong desire to be able to run their own schools, in their own communities, so their kids came home at night, after school. They wanted to be able to teach them what they
wanted to teach them, that was the important piece. Local control was—we want to teach our kids what we want to teach them and do it ourselves. We have that right.”
First Nations began to push back against the government, retaking control over their children’s education through the provincial or new Indian Affairs-run school systems. However, a unifying force or event was needed to bring all the First Nations’ efforts together.
The master of ceremonies, Michael Hutchinson, said the fair “celebrates science and is a step toward goal setting and choosing careers.” Guest speaker Wab Kinew, the current leader of the NDP, expanded by recommending that students think “high school plus,” meaning to add on either trade or university after high school.
Hutchinson discussed how First Nations have always excelled in sciences and finding truths, such as the in-depth knowledge required to make a birchbark canoe. Kinew shared an Anishinaabe Creation Story he heard about fire expanding into everything that will be and then collapsing—an ancient story from long before the science of the black hole today. Kinew stressed that First Nations students have a major role to play in the scientific world.
One student scientist said they value the fair as participation goes on your school record and you learn new things. Every student getting a bronze, silver, or gold medal is an added benefit.
Some of the strongest projects at the fair focused on First Nations perspectives, and they were experimental versus informational, following the scientific method.
Many projects demonstrated the fair’s theme of “TwoEyed Seeing,” which refers to the differences and similarities between Indigenous and Western science with the understanding that both are whole knowledge systems.
THE THREE SISTERS
Sarabelle Garson’s project demonstrated all the components of a strong entry, winning a gold medal and progressing on to the Canada-Wide Science Fair that was held in Edmonton in May. A Grade 9 student attending Fisher River High School, Sarabelle’s project called “The Three Sisters” explores three plants (beans, squash, and corn) that First Nations have traditionally grown together to increase yield and sustainability.
Sarabelle said, “This traditional agricultural practice would be beneficial today because the Three Sisters method does not require the use of fertilizers. Agricultural runoff forms algae, which has adverse effects on Lake Winnipeg, the commercial fishing industry, and First Nations who have been fishing as part of a traditional way of life” (Youth Science Canada). Sarabelle grew the three plants using both a hydroponic (water) method and regular soil, comparing those grown together and in isolation. Sarabelle said she will continue to grow the plants and that growing your own is cheaper than buying from a store. She said a challenge in participating included explaining the project to judges, but this wasn’t apparent when hearing her discuss her stellar experiment.
Kailey Flurry and Sawyer Thunderbird-Sky’s project explored Dakota Constellations and how the constellations change in each season. In Grade 8 at Sioux Valley High School, these two young scientists
shared a winter constellation story. A Chief who had lost his hand offered his daughter’s hand in marriage to the man who could get the Chief’s hand back for him.
EFFECTS OF SUBSTANCE ABUSE IN FIRST NATIONS
Hallie Grieves and Katrina Bradburn, both in Grade 11 in Oxford House, shared their project on the effects of substance abuse in First Nations. They chose this topic for personal reasons. Katrina said she has “seen the effects a lot” and Hallie said that “sometimes [you] don’t go a week without an overdose or problem with too much drugs.” Katrina explained that the problems are worse since the pandemic and fentanyl.
To address the problems, they suggest that a culturally appropriate organization from outside of Oxford House be set up to assist. They explained there is a shame involved in substance abuse, and it is hard for members of the small community of Oxford House to talk to those they know. Hallie and Katrina’s awareness and scientific research into the problems facing their First Nation offers hope—such people will be the ones who stop the cycle of intergenerational trauma. On a side note, these two inquisitive scientists were walking around at the end of the day looking and learning at from the other projects.
EXTRACTING OIL FROM CEDAR AND JUNIPER
Fred Mckay Jr., a Grade 7 student in Crane River, won a gold medal at the science fair and attended the Canada-Wide Science Fair, where he won the First Nations University of Canada Recognition Award! His project looked at extracting essential oils from juniper and cedar for their health benefits.
Before picking the plants for his experiment, Fred spoke with a Knowledge Keeper (Garry Bruyere from Sagkeeng who now lives in Crane River) about picking some plants only in the correct season. In his experiment, Fred boils the juniper and cedar and extracts the oils from the top, a similar process of extraction that Indigenous people have traditionally used.
Fred explained that such natural oils are medicines that do not cause complications like the chemicals in antibiotics and Tylenol can. Fred said juniper is good for diabetes and urine and bladder concerns, while cedar helps with joint issues and arthritis. Fred’s grandmother was a medicine woman, so he comes by his interest in healing honestly.
On Wednesday, June 7th, a little under 250 students and staff, 12 First Nations school teams from all over Manitoba, kicked off MFNERC’s 3rd annual softball tournament. The morning started looking a little grey and overcast, but by the time students hit the field, the clouds had parted, and the sun was shining.
Physical education and Health Program facilitator Mike Thomas, and Land-Based physical education facilitator Norbert Mercedes, were both in attendance, along with a visit from MFNERC’s Executive Director, Charles Cochran. “I don’t want to sound dramatic, but events like this can be life-changing” for some of the students involved, shared Mike about the tournament. “I have had countless messages from teachers” and all wanting to share their pride and joy from seeing the effect it has had on their students.
Some schools arrived after 13+ hours of driving to make it to the game, big shout out to all the students and staff from York Landing and Spirit Lake for their dedication and time! This year marks the first tournament open to all MFNERC & MFNSS schools. One of the event’s hosts said
“…next year, we’re aiming for double the participation. When the kids are happy, I am happy.”
The 12 schools took part in three rounds of games, with the winners of each game round moving on to final playoff matches. The sun was shining, the temperature was around 27◦degrees, the sound of metal bats clinking against balls, the crunch of red dirt under running shoes, and kids’ laughs, cheers, and shouts all filled the air. Lunch was the traditional game day fuel of hotdogs and hamburgers, grilled and served by MFNERC volunteers. The games started around 9:30 am and continued into the afternoon. The victorious team of this year’s tournament was Kistiganwacheeng Elementary School, beating Chief Sam Cook Mahmuwee Education Center, who came in a close second.
We want to congratulate and thank everyone who made this event the homerun it was! Thank you to our school’s students and staff for making the journey for the game, and congratulations to the winning teams; everyone who played is a winner in our eyes. Thank you to the hosts, Mike, and Norbert from MFNSS, for all the hard work and planning that went into the day, and to all our volunteers who came out as support, we couldn’t have done it without you.
Lake St. Martin School Lake St. Martin First Nation
Sergent Tommy Prince School Brokenhead Ojibwe Nation
Ginew School Roseau River Anishinaabe Nation
Dakota Plains Dakota Plains Wahpeton Nation
George Saunders Memorial York Factory Nation
Long Plains School Long Plain Nation
Keeseekoowenin School Keeseekoowenin Ojibway Nation
Lawrence Sinclair Memorial School Kinonjeoshtegon Nation
Kistiganwacheeng Elementary School Garden Hill Nation
Chief Sam Cook Mahmuwee Education Center Tataskweyak Cree Nation
“Niigaan Indaabidaa” (Let’s Look to the Future), the namesake of this year’s Gathering of Friends – Inter-school Pow Wow, was held on Ginew School grounds, in the community of Roseau River Anishinaabe First Nation. On the bright warm and sunny days of May 11th, 12th, and 19th, hundreds of youths, and children from school divisions all over the southern region of Manitoba came together to start off this year’s Pow Wow season.
To the beat of the drum and the pounding of little feet against the earth, our communities came together to celebrate their unique and rich cultures, histories, songs, dances, and languages. We give humble thanks to Ginew School for all their hard work and dedication that made this event possible. Gatherings like this are a fundamental part of developing pride and strength in our identities as well as preserving our knowledge for future generations.
The children are truly at the heart of everything MFNERC, MFNSS, and all our education centers are trying to do. They are our future, our most precious gift from the creator; through their eyes, we see the world anew and can imagine a brighter tomorrow.