Commentary | Indigenous control of Indigenous education

Ongoing colonialism in educational systems


First Nations’ control of their education is essential for ensuring their social, economic, political and cultural development. […] Only through full First Nations’ jurisdiction over education will their students be able to receive a quality education that respects their cultural identity, common beliefs, languages, values and traditions.”

—The First Nations Education Council, “Project: Educational Governance”

As a non-Indigenous graduate student in Educational Studies at McGill, I have a sense of responsibility to think critically about issues and initiatives concerning Indigenous education. Indeed, we have an obligation to recognize that Canada is a settler-colonial state established and maintained through the dispossession and oppression of Indigenous peoples. Those of us who benefit from the power of Canadian institutions – including McGill and other universities – must work toward the elimination of colonial policies and practices. It is with this in mind that I look at the federal government’s First Nations Education Act, and a new organization, Teach for Canada (TFC).

Teach for Canada is an organization set to launch in September 2014, offering university graduates the opportunity to teach in rural Indigenous communities for two years, following an intensive summer training program. According to the TFC website, the organization’s “vision is to make education more equal by helping schools in rural, remote, and Aboriginal communities recruit outstanding classroom leaders.”

Kyle Hill and Adam Goldenberg, the co-founders of the program, assert that TFC can be a solution for educational inequity in Canada. Nonetheless, building on the extensive criticism of Teach for America, which has been active in the U.S. for more than two decades, serious concerns are already being raised about TFC. Critics especially call attention to the limited quantity and quality of training that the teachers receive, and to the problematic nature of assigning predominantly white, inexperienced teachers to work with Indigenous students in under-resourced, rural, community schools.

Teach for America and TFC can be understood as part of a broader austerity agenda, shifting responsibility for education from the public to the private sphere. As an article by Rob Green published in the Haudenosaunee weekly newspaper Two Row Times pointed out, the public awareness campaign for TFC coincided with the Harper government’s announcement of the First Nations Education Act (FNEA) last fall.

We have an obligation to recognize that Canada is a settler-colonial state established and maintained through the dispossession and oppression of Indigenous peoples.

As Green observes, the embedding of the FNEA within the Conservative government’s economic budget is telling, as is Hill’s description of TFC’s “long-term dream” of having “Teach for Canada fellows sitting at a Cabinet table, sitting in newsrooms, sitting in boardrooms on Bay Street, where they can have an impact on educational inequalities from those vantage points.” The suggestion is that of prioritizing neoliberal political and economic concerns, and a colonial perception of Indigenous people as an objectified, economic resource for Canada. As Métis educator Chelsea Vowel reminds us, “there is no Aboriginal system of education in Canada, […] the system of education that exists in Canada is wholly Canadian, both legislatively and in terms of provision.”

The federal government’s stated goal in relation to Indigenous education is “to provide First Nation students with quality education that provides them with the opportunity to acquire the skills needed to enter the labour market and be full participants in a strong Canadian economy.” This goal, the FNEA proposed by the federal government in October, and TFC all appear to simply ignore decades of Indigenous demands for self-determination, and jurisdiction over their own education systems.

The FNEA, renamed the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act this winter, has been denounced by many Indigenous scholars, educators, activists and groups including the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador and the First Nations Education Council. The Kahnawà:ke Education Working Group argues:

“The legislation does not respect the inherent rights of Indigenous Peoples to govern ourselves and take responsibility for our children. It places the Canadian government in a paternalistic position to impose Canadian and Quebec teaching ideologies upon our children, as was done in the Residential and Indian Day School eras. The legislation lacks cultural and linguistic appropriateness and does not respect the individual needs of our nations.”

“[T]here is no Aboriginal system of education in Canada, […] the system of education that exists in Canada is wholly Canadian, both legislatively and in terms of provision.”

Although in a February 7 news release the Harper government touted the Act as “an historic agreement between the Government of Canada and the Assembly of First Nations” many First Nations insist that the government has not met its obligation to consult with them. The proposed legislation has been repeatedly criticized for failing to guarantee “necessary, adequate, equitable and stable funding for Education” in First Nations communities, failing to provide “meaningful support for the teaching of First Nations languages, culture and cultural values,” and providing “little recognition and respect for First Nations jurisdiction and control of First Nations education.”

The very structure of the event announcing this “historical agreement” reflected the ongoing colonial nature of the government’s policies and practices regarding First Nations. Certain invitees and elders were named on an approved list, while others who were not approved were sent to watch the event on monitors. The latter group, including Blood Tribe (Kainai Nation) Idle No More activist Twila Singer, was later forced to leave at the conclusion of the event while approved guests were invited for a feast. Métis artist Christi Belcourt, who was present at the event, described being part of the non-approved group that was closely followed by security. As Belcourt reminds us the announcement itself took place in the context of Canadian State authorities marking and controlling the movement of Indigenous bodies on First Nations’ land.

Indeed Mi’kmaw lawyer, scholar, and Idle No More activist Pamela D. Palmater argues that the Act is actually less about Indigenous education than it is about “creating a new kind of dependence for First Nations—dependence on labour jobs from extractive industries to undermine attempts by their leaders to defend their territories and the resources on them.”

In writing from the institutional location of McGill, it is also important to remember that McGill was founded on the wealth of a European colonizer and has refused to recognize and compensate the Iroquois Six Nations for an outstanding debt incurred in 1860, when according the the Six Nations, McGill borrowed $8,000 from the Six Nations Trust Fund held by the colonial government in trust for Six Nations land. As McGill expresses a desire to recruit more Aboriginal students into its undergraduate programs, are these students merely expected to ignore the institutional failure to acknowledge its colonial history and to celebrate “the legacy of James McGill?”

The suggestion is that of prioritizing neoliberal political and economic concerns, and a colonial perception of Indigenous people as an objectified, economic resource for Canada.

What are the boundaries of the current partnerships such as those that form the basis of McGill’s First Nations and Inuit Education program in the Department of Integrated Studies in Education (DISE)? How does the University position itself in relation to the assertions of the Kahnawà:ke Education Centre and the First Nations Education Council? Are the campus and community-based programs we are engaged in both challenging and eliminating colonial relations? Are non-Indigenous McGill students, researchers, educators, and administrators actively working to de-centre whiteness and settler perspectives? How can we do more?

Without actively and consistently responding to these questions, education programs and other interventions by non-Indigenous people seeking to ‘help’ Indigenous communities, can amount to little more than what scholars Eve Tuck and Wayne Yang call “settler moves to innocence,” actions in the guise of ‘decolonization’ that serve to relieve settler guilt without significantly disrupting and altering colonial institutional structures and power relations. This is not to claim that non-Indigenous educators and researchers should never work with Indigenous students, or in Indigenous schools or communities. Non-Indigenous scholars can contribute expertise and resources toward building capacity in Indigenous communities that can promote Indigenous autonomy.

This can only happen, however, when Indigenous people, agendas, and belief systems are prioritized, and when approaches reflect the views of the specific communities within which the work is being done. Especially given the demands of neoliberalism, “educators are called upon to play a central role in constructing the conditions for a different kind of encounter, an encounter that both opposes ongoing colonization and that seeks to heal the social, cultural, and spiritual ravages of colonial history.”


rosalind hampton is a doctoral student in Educational Studies and the coordinator of Community-University Talks. To contact the writer, please email commentary@mcgilldaily.com.


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