Having First Nations school psychologists working with youth in the schools affiliated with the Resource Centre provides a deeper understanding of shared experiences and cultural differences. Modern psychology, built around a European perspective, often lacks room for First Nation’s cultural insights and has a narrow focus on diagnosing flaws and shortcomings. A Resource Centre in-house school psychologist, Patricia Petti, participated in a Master of Education in School and Applied Child Psychology program designed to address a shortage of First Nations school psychologists in Manitoba. This education opportunity was created in 2016 when the Resource Centre partnered with the University of Calgary’s Werklund School of Education to create a unique cohort for First Nations students. This graduate program centered on academic robustness and First Nations’ ways of knowing and practices, as Western educational systems have historically caused hurdles for First Nation students.
During her previous work as a social worker, Petti noticed gaps and misunderstandings between Westernized testing measures and First Nations perspectives. Preconceived biases often lead to overgeneralized and simplified assessments of students’ needs and behaviors, which do not accurately reflect fundamental aspects of their identity. For example, as a mother of three, two of whom are on the autism spectrum, Petti has seen the impact of individualized support on her children’s abilities. “My two youngest kids are on the autism spectrum, so they need much support. My middle child, up until two years ago, was non-verbal. The positive change in him was due to the support that acknowledged and met him on his level of ability, and that has helped his abilities. There is a lot of potential there, we just must work with the students’ individual needs and meet them in a way that creates positive results,” Petti says.
Valuable Research Study on Working with Indigenous Students
She points to a recent study she took part in, called, “A Qualitative Report of the Experiences of Indigenous School Psychology Trainees Working with Indigenous Students,” which discusses the hurdles First Nations clients often face when experiencing Western psychology methods and philosophies. Petti sees behaviors and reactions in her students that she can personally relate to due to the long-term effects of intergenerational trauma.
“There are so many gifts that are often forgotten or overlooked in these assessments. Most outsiders only see the exhibited behaviors and do not realize that they are representative of an unmet need,” Petti says. “You don’t want to reward bad behavior, so the opposite is usually implemented. However, when there are a lot of traumas, punishments do not cultivate the desired behaviors. Instead, they create only feelings of wrongness in the child. These students need praise, one-on-one attention, and a safe connection with an adult. When students feel good about themselves, they not only treat others better but then can do their best.”
One of the report’s significant findings is that there should be a provincial board of regulation for school psychologists. The Manitoba Association of School Psychologists (MASP) has been trying to acquire a regulatory body for 40 years. Regulation would mean appropriate oversight, review, standardized training, and cultural inclusivity to serve the diverse body of students.
Petti believes that all these changes can come about. School psychologists should use their training to create an inclusive learning environment that recognizes and values Indigenous Traditional Knowledge, benefiting individual students and the First Nations. She is also honored to work alongside educational staff on the ground, who are working towards creating a healthier change in the First Nations.
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.
Some Elder’s say “You are the land your people live on.” The land’s influence touches everything from chores to etiquette to prayers. Even on the physical level, foods that mothers eat, harvested from around their homes, form the bodies of their children.
When people move onto land, they develop a lifestyle as they collect the resources needed to live. After a few generations, this lifestyle and the interaction with the other nations that live around their landscape become the foundation of the people’s culture and history. And as the people live on their land, as they reach up and the stars reach down, this becomes their deeper teachings about life, the Universe, and everything. This relationship to the land they live on is what makes a culture, or in Cree, ininiw pimatisiwin (a way of life). This relationship to the land they live on is what makes a culture “Indigenous.” It also explains why the peoples of the prairies live a different life than the peoples who live on the coasts, or in the forests, or near a volcano. The very lessons within the land are different.
Having grown up on the land as a Misipawistik Cree First Nation member, First Nations educator Norbert Mercredi now works as an expert on land-based teaching and First Nations games and entertainment. His people are connected to a river and were known in traditional times as the Namew Inniwak, or Sturgeon Cree. He remembers a time when all the toys came from the land.
“When I was young, we made all our toys. There was no plastic. We made our toys. When we went out, we would stay out all day. We didn’t go home to eat. We ate the fruit of the forest around us. The boys, we’d have contests to see who could swim the fastest up the river. The river was strong, moved fast, so it meant something to be the best. I don’t remember fights in those days. We competed against the river, and if you could be the best at something, everyone was happy for you for that,” Mercredi says.
Mercredi says the land was used extensively as a teaching tool during traditional times. For example, traditional place names often mention an area’s history or potential resources. To journey out to those places, to walk trails that First Nations ancestors walked, meant to learn the history and stories that went with the landscape. This connection to the land also explains why different First Nations cultures may name the geographical points in a landscape differently, as they may view the history that happened there from a different, and sometimes opposing, perspective. The alternate place names may highlight contrary perspectives on a battle, a meeting of people, or even the relative safety of an area. By walking through their traditional territory with their Elders, local youth learn their culture’s history and perspective on the land and the events that impacted their nation. Mercredi says this linking of the landscape and teaching doesn’t just exist in the realm of history but ventures into deeper beliefs.
“When we sat around the campfire at night, it was the stars that inspired the Creation Stories. Some stories were only told in the winter. Some lessons were only taught in the spring when the land was coming alive. Everything had its time and place. There were places and times for everything to be taught. There are sacred sites throughout what is now known as Manitoba that people would visit to learn certain teachings, where they would do ceremony. Teachings were often delivered through the ceremony itself,” Mercredi says. He adds, when it came to play, because everything was built from the land, the higher teachings of history, culture, and worldview were mixed with the bread-andbutter teachings of how and when to harvest materials for building toys and sports equipment, how to prepare an area and make it safe, and when certain games and teachings were appropriate.
“How do you clear the ice in winter? Well, you learn when you prepare for the kona kinepik or, as it is known in English, the snow snake toss. In this game, a stick is slid across the ice, and whoever can get their stick to travel farthest is the winner. To get through the snow to the ice, they would drag a log, tied to ropes, over the snow, which would clear a path for the sliding sticks.” Mercredi points out that this game improved hand-eye coordination for things like hunting. “Just by preparing and playing snow snake, a child would learn a bunch of different skills and tactics that would be relevant in their adult life,” Mercredi says.
Of course, the lessons learned through toys and play are just a sliver of the teachings available through landbased learning. Elder Florence Paynter believes revitalizing First Nations languages is crucial to carrying First Nations philosophies into the future.
“Language is so important to who we are. Our beliefs and values can be found in the language. When we take our children out on to the land, and we teach them how to survive, we can do it in our languages. In that way, we’ll teach them, not only general conversation, but the more in-depth and subject-specific language, like anatomy,” Elder Paynter says.
Elder Paynter was born and raised on the Sandy Bay First Nation and says everything she learned as a child was connected to the land. “We harvested our foods and medicines from the environment. This is what we are calling land-based learning today because many of our people are not thinking about the critical skills our children and their children will need in order to survive. It was through helping their Elders pick medicine, harvest plants for food and shelter, and hunt for food and resources that they were taught the knowledge and skills that supported their culture and survival.”
Harvesting materials often means harvesting them at a particular time so the properties of the item are suitable for the assigned use. For example, a medicinal plant may be harvested at different times in its life stages, depending on the treatment and the properties needed. A seedling may have different medicinal uses than the fruit of the adult plant.
“Some of these deeper, more specific teachings can’t be found in a book. You need to be out on the land to find the plant you want to teach about, to show the youth where it grows and why, how it is harvested and used, and to tell them why the relationship with that plant is important to their people. It is through those teachings that we will be able to make the youth, not only fluent in their culture and traditional skills, but also in their language, as they learn the more intricate and in-depth lessons,” Elder Paynter says.
Putting together something like a birchbark canoe involves a range of materials that all need to be harvested when the properties are best for the canoe. This required experimentation and knowledge of plants and their properties, rivalling modern biologists.
“Land-based learning is often about learning by doing. And this goes for language too. Learn it by using it. This philosophy of learning can happen in the home too. If you want to learn your language, wash dishes with your auntie and have her speak in your language while you both do it. You’ll be learning something, your auntie will feel valued and appreciated, and you’ll both have fun doing it. Most times, at the end of land-based learning, a lesson has been taught, a lot of fun was had, and a chore was accomplished,” Elder Paynter says.
Land-based learning offers many learning opportunities, and being close to nature has proven to have a calming and positive effect on hearts and minds. Recent studies have found that spending time within nature can improve memory and mental flexibility and increase attention span and control. While theories abound as to why this occurs, it is generally thought that being in nature triggers a physiological response that reduces stress. For teachers, this may result in students who are more interested in what is being taught and better able to retain the lessons.
Educator Mercredi says that being on the land, within a forest, or out on the lake has a calming effect that helps students learn. This is just one of the reasons he feels land-based learning is so important to revitalizing First Nations cultures and languages.
“Nature touches our hearts and minds. Mother Nature can help us calm down. I’ve seen students who went crazy in the classroom become calm and interested when outside. Going out on the land has an effect on our emotions. It’s hard to stay angry when you are out on the land. Even, just working on, you know, the nervous energy of students through physical labor has an impact and makes them more ready to learn. It’s so important that we reconnect all students to nature, but especially First Nations students. The very culture, history, and language of the First Nations students come from these lands.”
Davin Dumas, the Resource Centre’s director of Languages and Cultures, supported the development and completion of the Land-Based Education Support Document for Educators, a recent publication by the Resource Centre. “Within our newest teaching tool are lessons and strategies meant to promote mino-bimaadiziwin, or a good life, for First Nation students. The First Nation philosophies within the Support Document are based on the knowledge shared by the working group participants, who were representative of the Ininowak, Anishinaabe, Anisiniwak, Denesuline, and Dakota nations. The resource begins with foundational lessons, but then each unit delves into the activities and teachings that go with specific times of the year and the most appropriate activities for that season or moon. These lessons are then narrowed down to reflect each of the First Nation cultures so the lessons can speak to students’ local regions. The revitalization of First Nation languages, beliefs, knowledge, and skills is the focal point of the Support Document.”
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