The Western Canada First Nations Administrators Education Conference
The conference brought together educators, professionals, education authorities and personnel, First Nations leaders, Elders, government representatives and First Nations citizens. The theme of this year’s conference was “Celebrating Excellence in First Nations Education.
The conference began first thing in the morning in the traditional way of our people with a pipe ceremony. Before the day’s events we had a grand entry lead by Sakgeeng First Nation Chief Donavan Fontaine and Lorne Keeper, Executive Director of MFNERC. Representing the host First Nation, Councilor Derrick Henderson of the Sakgeeng First Nation acted as moderator. He commented as an educator that the day’s events were something special. “When I was working in education in the 80’s we never had the opportunity to come together in this way.” Elder Ruth Norton acknowledged the signatories of Treaty One, “in whose territory this conference is taking place.” Chief Fontaine in his opening remarks commented on the essential role of education. “Education is the key to our peoples’ future. It takes us out of the shackles of poverty and leads to a better life.”
Lorne Keeper talked about the ongoing challenges that are placed upon First Nations Schools and reminded the audience that things a slowly but surely getting better. “We need to have hope. I also view the work we do as symbolic of hope. In a short time period we have made great strides.
Former Nation Chief Phil Fontaine was day one’s keynote speaker. It was Mr. Fontaine’s disclosure about abuses he endured in Residential School that brought this hidden history to national attention. He talked about the need to make preserving our languages a high priority. “Have we completed the journey? Not by a long shot, we still have far to go. We still require improvements to our schools. We need to place greater emphasis on teaching our languages. We need to have immersion programs in Cree, Ojibway, Dene, Oji-Cree and Dakota. There are 55 Aboriginal languages in this country only three are strong. The other 52 are in crisis and some are nearing extinction. Language is the repository to all we are as First Nations people.”
Mr. Fontaine acknowledges that the biggest challenge for First Nations schools in underfunding. “There is severe underfunding across the board. I am not aware of any First Nations school that receives fair funding, the same as the public schools. 1996, the federal government instituted a 2% cap on all First Nations funding. From that year the gap has been forever increasing. In many cases the disparity can be as much as 9,000 dollars per capita, per student.”
Mr. Fontaine talked about the role of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which is travelling the country gathering the stories of Indian Residential School Survivors. He said this is an educational opportunity that is for all Canadians. “The TRC is a public education process. It’s about the Canadian experience. It is about Canada’s collective history. It isn’t just about us. It isn’t about the survivors only. It is about the country. The success of the TRC is dependent on the participation of all of us, First Nations and Canadians. The reason our participation is important is that we have a story to tell. It is an important story. There is a missing chapter in Canadian and it is the story of the residential school experience.”
Workshops on the first day included “Implementing Treaty Education in Classrooms”, “21st Century Learning and First Nations Education” and “First Nations Education for Sustainability”.
The second day was filled with a number of workshops including “eLearning in Manitoba, The Wapaskwa Virtual Collegiate”, “Administrators Guide to Technology in the School”, “First Nations Language IT strategy” and many others.
Lori Whitman, Program Director of Treaty 4 Student Success Program led a workshop on Performance Management and she talked about how data collection is being done with respect to the First Nations. “Data has been manipulated and used against First Nations people, especially our children. We don’t want to contribute to that; we want to help not harm.”
The final day of the conference was highlighted by a keynote address by MFNERC Associate Executive Director, Gwen Merrick. She talked about the long road towards taking back control of education and that despite road blocks on the way the journey continues. “Throughout our history of education people have told us how to do it. People in Ottawa who have never been on reserve make a decision for us, totally ignoring that our citizens have the knowledge and they would be doing wonders if they had the money to do it. That is forgotten because everyone thinks they know more than us. The residential school fiasco was created by people who thought they knew what was best for us.”
In closing she reiterated the theme of this year’s conference Celebrating Excellence in First Nations Education. “We need to focus on the success. We need to focus on the positive. Be realistic and analyzing. But we need to be positive in moving forward, step by step by step, overcoming the challenges placed before us by people who think they know what is best for us. We know what is best for our children and our grandchildren. Ekosi.”
Next year’s conference will be hosted by Alberta and representatives from the host First Nation led the grand entry out of the conference room.