This article came from MFNERC’s magazine.
If you found part two first, please go back and read part one here
By Tamara Eaker Content Development
⟳ Last updated | Monday, July 3, 2023
The 1969 White Paper and Wahbung
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.