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The promise of increased self-governance for Indigenous peoples in Canada is the perfect climate for accelerating educational change. What changes might be ahead for the quality of education offered to Indigenous youth?

We pose this question in the wake of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s recent announcement that Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) will be dissolved and replaced by two new federal departments under two cabinet ministers.

Currently, the federal minister of INAC is the governing authority over Indigenouseducation in all provinces and territories. The promise of increased self-governance for Indigenous peoples in Canada is the perfect climate for accelerating educational change.

Most Canadian schools currently fail to meet the needs of Indigenous students. Recent data show the gap in academic achievement between Indigenous learners and non-Indigenous learners is widening. Educational reforms are urgently needed in many areas – from curricular content and teaching to school-wide policy and program support.

The creation of First Nations education authorities (FNEAs) is one solution. Functioning at a level comparable to superintendents in provincial school systems, FNEAs could help Indigenous children in schools both on and off-reserves.

In making this argument, we draw from extensive careers in research and education. The primary author, Dianne Wilkins, is a retired superintendent of schools in New Brunswick, and a PhD candidate at the University of New Brunswick (UNB). She is now researching Indigenous education in public schools along with Elizabeth Sloat, a professor in UNB’s Faculty of Education.

Our research traces the emergence of educational authorities within Indigenouseducation discourse. We examine the potential for structural designs and policies to better support educational outcomes for Indigenous learners.

As we know, the residential boarding school and community day school systems led to devastating outcomes for Indigenous children and families. These systems aimed to assimilate children into a Euro-Canadian culture. Their educational impact: 60 to 80 per cent of residential school children failed to advance past third grade.

Grave concerns expressed by parents and leaders kickstarted a process in the early 1950s of transferring Indigenous students to provincial public schools. Community day schools became band-operated schools. Since the 1950s, Indigenous peoples, with few exceptions, have struggled to graduate from high school and to seek post-secondary education.

In 1988, an Assembly of First Nations study examined all aspects of Canada’s Indigenous education. The report highlighted the need for FNEAs to manage band-operated schools at all levels from pre-school through to post-secondary education.

Since the report’s release, some First Nations education alliances have been formed across Canada to provide academic leadership. However, these alliances are not legislated or federally recognized. Instead, they are mainly funded through competitive federal grant programs.

An organizational gap

Aboriginal scholars Harvey McCue and Michael Mendelson advocate for a First Nations Education Act that would replicate the public school system of organization, but for Indigenous students.

Provincial schools are typically structured around three levels. Provincial departments of education sit at Level 3. District superintendents and education councils are at Level 2. School principals are at Level 1. McCue and Mendelson distinguish these levels as the political, the district and the school.

The structural organization for band-operated schools differs significantly. These schools are managed according to the Indian Act, which positions the Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada at Level 3, with ultimate authority over all education-related matters. There are no Level 2 designations. Only a director of education and principal sit at Level 1.

To address this notable gap in Level 2 – or district-level operations – McCue and Mendelson favour establishing FNEAs. Failure to consult Provincially, Level 2 district superintendents and education councils are operationally responsible for setting regulations, standards, procedures and policies. They are responsible for school […]

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