FNCFNE_harperChiefs and First Nation citizens have not only been weighing in on the latest education announcement by Canada and the AFN, they have been increasingly critical.  First Nations leaders from BC to the Maritimes have been distancing themselves more and more from National Chief Shawn Atleo and the sinking ship that is the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act (FNCFNEA).

But I’m not sure that is fair.

The Assembly of First Nations (AFN) executive were given marching orders by Chiefs-in Assembly resolution to implement a number of conditions to the government’s former First Nations Education Act legislative proposal.  To their credit, good intentions and hard work, National Chief Atleo, AFN executive and AFN staff were able to negotiate these conditions into this new proposal.

But ever since that high profile announcement in Alberta (complete with colourful photos opps of Harper arm-in-arm with the National Chief and other high profile leaders), Chiefs and Indians alike have been quickly jumping ship.

At first blush, we don’t have a lot of the details from the proposed First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act (FNCFNEA).  On the surface, to me, the announcement details show a lot of promise, particularly with the programs conforming to provide proper facilities and provisions to carry out exams in an efficient manner—particularly with the spanish clep practice test. The eternal optimist in me is hopeful that this legislation and the significant funding attached to it may mean some progressive benefit to First Nations students and schools on-reserve.

But there are a lot of reasons to be skeptical.  There are a lot of red flags all over this.  The Conservatives will be basing the legislation on their flawed consultation process.  No one is happy with the usual “Con” of an engagement process.  More concerning, all of their objectives (minimum standards, cost controls) are still front and centre.  Also, it’s not quite clear of whether the $3.35 billion of funding is new funding or simply a re-packaging of their original commitments.  The only real difference are the nice glossy additions negotiated by the Assembly of First Nations, including name change, inclusion of language and culture, and a few other surface-level objectives.  But is it really First Nations Control of First Nations Education, or just an AFN-endorsed First Nations Education Act?  That remains to be seen.

But broader, more important questions remain.  Will this mean an improvement for First Nations students and on-reserve schools?  Will this help graduate more students?  Will it improve the retention and education levels of our kids?  Will they read better, write better and…  umm, math better?

Are we measuring against the right things?

We need to subjectively assess the pros and the cons of this and future proposals.  This is the case for any subject area, health and social reforms, economic development, self-government, etc.  It is imperative that we objectively measure the right things.  In education, it’s pretty simple to me what we need to be measuring against:  the Indian Act.  If all else fails, if this Act is not put in place, what do we have?  The same old, same old Indian Act.  The current education system under the Indian Act and associated AANDC funding is still inadequate and not getting any better.  Forget about special ed, phys ed programs, arts and music programs, libraries, new and replacement capital costs, operations and maintenance and adequate and attractive salaries and benefits for experienced teachers.  The Indian Act is no alternative.

Does the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act improve on the status quo?  Not sure, but it’s certainly worth exploring.

For the Anishinabek Nation, it shouldn’t mean too much because we have been negotiating our own education system with the federal government for the past 20 years.  However, several Anishinabek communities have already rejected these negotiations and the education system.  This is an education system based on our own extensive consultations.  It’s based on our own specific needs.  It will be governed under our own constitutions.  Yet, it’s still not good enough to move the yardsticks.  Now that a few of these communities have rejected it, what is their alternative?  You guessed it: the Indian Act.

Does the Anishinabek Nation education system improve on the status quo?  In my opinion, there is no question – our education system, our way.  We get out from under the Indian Act.  Sure there are a lot of challenges with funding being the key concerns.  But it’s still way better than what we have now.

Change needs to be incremental

No matter which party is in power, we will never, ever, get exactly what we want.  Systemic transformation requires time.  Time to change the minds of Ma and Pa Canadian Public.  Time to influence their kids.  Time to make changes to a more inclusive electoral and governmental process.  Time to change the budgetary process.  Time for community readiness and to develop our own capacity.  Time to build our own economies.  The time isn’t only for government to change, but for our communities to change too.

To be clear, I’m not a Stephen Harper supporter or sympathizer.  Far from it.  Little good can come from a majority Conservative government – particularly for the indigenous.  Take a look at the Specific Claims reforms for example.  A great idea, right?  Claims are now being tracked and measured.  Many long standing land claims have been resolved.  Even the Specific Claims tribunal is starting to show some promise.  Then low and behold, the funding for Specific Claims treaty research is severely cut thereby limiting First Nations from researching and documenting their claims.  How’s that for fairness?

That being said, I don’t feel that Stephen Harper is the enemy.  The government is not our enemy.  True, they may be our adversaries at times, but we ought not to consider anyone our enemy.  Such a notion is unhealthy and antagonistically negative.

Our traditional teachings tell us that in the Eighth Fire, our Nation will actually come together with the settler Nations to form one great Nation. Apparently, the settler Nation will someday rise to the occasion and seek out our knowledge and make amends. Reconciliation will happen one day.  This prophesy was reinforced when our ancestors signed the Treaties.  This was again reinforced in the 1980 Anishinabek Declaration, when our people stated that we wished to be a part of Canada under a revised Constitutional framework.

In truth, we might be our own worse enemy.  We are ladened with a serious case of multi-generational trauma that manifests itself into anger, frustration that we turn onto our own people.  Whether it’s the grass-roots protesters speaking out against their own elected Chiefs, or the elected Chiefs turning on their chosen National Chief (or whatever form of lateral violence you may cite), the cause is many decades of oppression, poverty and long festering social and political malaise.

When it comes to government relations, negotiations and achieving our objectives: it is naturally better to be united.  United we stand, divided we fall.

First Nations in Canada need to be strategic and make the right deals that can lead us on a path of change.  We need step-by-step, incremental change that can lead to progressive, transformative change.  If the FNCFNEA is not a step that will lead to that change, than so be it.  But we can’t be opposing and protesting forever.

At some point, someone, whether it’s the National Chief, visionary Chiefs, Idle No More folks, warrior society leadership or the guy holding the megaphone chained to the bulldozer need to bring ideas to the table and work with government to get something done.

But it seems for the sake of opposition, feel-good protests and ongoing anti-Harper sentiment, we can’t agree on anything or move the yardsticks at all.