An agreement in principle described as “historic” between Ottawa and the First Nations paves the way for a “substantial” increase in funding for schools on reservations and greater autonomy for Aboriginal people to manage their education system.
according to what The duty Learned, this agreement has been welcomed with open arms in 22 Quebec indigenous communities, who have advocated for years for measures to protect their languages and culture. Ratification of the agreement by each of the band councils is due by the end of June.
This move follows a commitment by the Trudeau government to “decolonize education” following the trauma of residential schools established to assimilate young Aboriginal people. The discovery of graves anonymous near these religious schoolsshed a sharp light on the system’s violence against First Peoples for a year.
“We have experienced trauma, but today we are in a good position to improve the funding and governance of our schools,” affirms Denis Gros-Louis, executive director of the First Nations Education Council (FNEC), who communities in Quebec.
Mr. Gros-Louis refuses to reveal the details of the Ottawa agreement, which is to be revealed in the coming weeks, but he recalls the magnitude of the First Nations’ educational needs. Federal funding is frozen at 1996 levels, he said. In addition, the majority of students in reserve drop out of school before graduating from high school, the Auditor General’s office found in 2018.
“Certificates of diplomas”
The Aboriginal reserves are under Ottawa, which funds the services, but the band councils must pull off a feat: complying with Quebec’s education system while teaching their ancestral languages and traditions.
The First Nations in Quebec follow the Department of Education’s program to “ensure the credibility of diplomas,” explains Denis Gros-Louis. Aboriginal students in particular, like other Quebec children, have to take the year-end ministerial exam. This allows them to continue their studies anywhere in Quebec, for example if their parents move.
However, Aboriginal communities take the liberty of adapting certain programs to their context. For example, they have not set up kindergartens for 4-year-olds, who in their opinion place too much emphasis on learning and too little on the fun of toddlers. Instead, First Nations trained parents to help their 4-year-old children learn numbers and letters through play.
The FNEC also produces school materials adapted to local realities: children learn math by counting tree leaves or stairs.
Language teaching also requires costly adjustments, explains Denis Gros-Louis. For example, in Kahnawake, the Mohawk language is taught by elders. They need the support of younger teachers who have mastered pedagogy. Two people in the classroom, that’s double the cost of education.
A bridge between cultures
Young Aborigines need to feel valued at school – a place that has long been hostile to them – emphasizes Marie-Marthe Malec, education advisor at the Cégep de Sept-Îles. This Innu from Natashquan has been pursuing a teaching career for 35 years. She knows Gilles Vigneault well. Marie-Marthe Malec sees herself as “a bridge between cultures”.
“When I became a teacher, I was concerned. I had to attend Quebec’s education program. After five or six years I said to myself, “Wow! I’m going to start integrating my culture into my teaching,” she said this week at a symposium on the indigenousness of education at Ahuntsic College, in northern Montreal.
This pioneer is wary of the “behavioral disorder” or learning disability label being attached to Aboriginal students. In retrospect, she thinks that these children may simply struggle with teaching methods that are ill-adapted to their reality.
“Education for Aboriginal people is ‘seeing and doing’. Don’t give hour-long lectures, you’ll lose them. We don’t listen! We have to experiment. Don’t teach a recipe by telling you to do 100 milliliters of this and 200 milliliters of that, but rather make the recipe with young people, they will understand,” she says.
The language of instruction can be an additional obstacle to the success of Aboriginal students, emphasizes Denis Gros-Louis. French or English is often the second or third language of these children. Thus the Innu and the Atikamekw primarily speak their ancestral language. They then learn French. For the Mohawks, who are mostly English-speaking, French is the problem.
Mr. Gros-Louis regrets that Bill 96, recently passed, marginalizes Aboriginal languages, which he believes threatens the success of First Nations students.
Julie Gauthier, an anthropology teacher at Ahuntsic College — which hosted this week’s symposium on the indigenousness of education — praises the federal government’s willingness to help First Nations. But we have to go further, she says.
“Indigenous people are on the move. We can’t stop them. If we don’t give them self-determination in education, they will take it,’ she believes.
She notes that the First Nations do not have the same sense of time as the majority. The educational trajectory of Aboriginals could extend over a different period than foreseen in the current primary school system. For example, during the hunting season, students could go into the woods to return to school later – without being penalized. The ways of evaluating learning are likely to change as well. It is up to the Aborigines to determine their needs, emphasizes Julie Gauthier.