By Yuntian Shi
Written in 2021 for the University of Ottawa course HIS 4135 – The Indian Act, for Prof. Daniel Rück, edited by Daniel Rück and Sam Yee
Prior to European contact, education in Indigenous communities existed in the form of public and private tutoring. The community, or everyone in the community, could be the teacher of a child. They learned the basic life skills and culture of the nation in which they lived. When they grew older, they were able to choose a path and become an apprentice of a more senior member of the community. The goal of traditional Indigenous education aimed to pass on the cultural heritage and practical skills to ensure the individual’s and the community’s survival.
The arrival of missionaries transformed the educational landscape in First Nations communities. The school system they installed served the purpose of delivering the doctrine of Christianity and “enlightening” the Indigenous population. After the British took control of the territory we now call Canada, increasingly aggressive assimilationist policies were put in place. The idea of “civilizing” and Christianising became the guiding principle of Indigenous peoples’ education. The infamous Indian Residential School System (IRSS) was formed, which mandated schooling for Indigenous children from the age six until adulthood. The curriculum consisted of a combined education of literacy and vocational skills that aimed at raising “Canadian” farmers and craftsmen.
Such a system was oppressive in many ways. First of all, under the Indian Act, the federal government gained control over Indigenous education. It made attending residential schools compulsory, and Indigenous parents who kept their kids away from the system received criminal charges. Moreover, residential schools were boarding schools, and once students were in the system, they had very little contact with their parents and did not have a chance to raise them.
Another form of oppression of the IRSS was the destruction of Indigenous culture and identity. With its goal of assimilation, the curriculum and school administration forbade education on Indigenous languages and cultures. Indigenous people who went through the residential school system were distant from their own culture. To make matters worse, the church staff who ran the residential schools often believed that Indigenous cultures and people were inferior beings. Not only were measures such as name changes implemented, but the prejudice of the staff also led to the abuse of the Indigenous students in the schools.
Many studies, like Niezen’s Truth and Indignation: Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Indian Residential Schools reported that corporal punishment had been adopted in the teaching practices. Milloy’s work A National Crime: The Canadian Government and the Residential School System, 1879–1986, used church records to depict such oppression in detail. Sellar’s book They Called Me Number One: Secrets and Survival at an Indian Residential School documents Indigenous experiences of the residential school system using oral history. The Indian Act contributes to the Canadian government’s had a lack of accountability on Indigenous education.
The IRSS eventually lost its legitimacy over the course of the twentieth century. The goal of the federal government transitioned from assimilation to integration as Canadian society began to benefit from more diverse immigration. The end of the residential school system did not solve the issues relating to Indigenous education. As more Indigenous students were put into the regular Canadian curriculum, they had a difficult time transitioning towards a new culture, thus leading to high dropout rates. Also, for many years the Canadian curriculum lacked recognition of Indigenous cultures, histories, and contributions to Canadian history. These problems did not make Indigenous education any better than before. On the other hand, traditional education methods among Indigenous peoples lacked both institutional support and the recognition from authorities on public and private education, limiting the development of traditional education systems in the new era.
The topic of Indigenous education returned with Pierre Trudeau’s attempt to abolish the Indian Act. The White Paper suggested the childcare and education would be under the jurisdiction of the provincial government, as outlined in the constitution, to promote smooth integration. Other areas of education would be governed just like the rest of Canada. Indigenous advocacy groups strongly opposed this proposal due to its subordination of Indigenous governance by the Canadian government and its neglect towards the federal government’s responsibilities outlined in the Indian Act. As the withdrawal of the Indian Act was abandoned due to public discontent, Indigenous education remained at the status quo. The First Nations Education Council’s Report on priority actions in view of improving First Nations education provided a critical view of this period and argues that the Canadian government failed and lacked sincerity in implementing the Indian Act as Indigenous education suffered from funding shortages and non-Indigenous management. White, Julie and Beavon’s study Enhancing Educational Attainment for First Nations Children has shown the importance of funding, stable governance, and community support towards First Nations students’ attainment.
It was not until recent years that the topic of Indigenous education returned. In 2013, Bill-C33, the Indian Control Indian Education Act, was released by the federal government. It tries to establish a school board-like governance system in Indigenous communities and promote better integration of the existing education system. By doing so, the federal government claims that it will allow the band councils to control their own education and have a system that is accountable. Mendelson’s report Why We Need a First Nation Education Act has supported such a vision as he finds that Cree Schoolboard, which practiced this policy, has had a positive outcome on Indigenous education. However, it received massive protests from some Indigenous people who claimed that, firstly, it is against the principles of Indigenous nationhood, as the Act outlines a supervisor position from the government, and secondly, that the school board system is not familiar to Indigenous Nations. McPherson’s thesis Transfer of Jurisdiction for Education: A Paradox in Regard to the Constitutional Entrenchment of Indian Rights to Education and the Existing Treaty #3 Right to Education provides a legal argument for why Indigenous education falls under the jurisdiction of Indigenous people. The most important accusation is that the federal government has not consulted with Indigenous Nations, despite claims of doing so.
The Indian Act has remained the main piece of legislation governing Indigenous education in Canada at the federal level. Some efforts have been made on the provincial level where acts dedicated to Indigenous education have been passed. Kirkness and Bowman’s First Nations and schools: Triumphs and Struggles have given a closer detail of Indigenous education in action and have presented their results province by province.
First Nations Education Council. Report on Priority Actions in View of Improving First Nations Education. Wendake, QC: First Nations Education Council, 2012.
This report was produced by the First Nations Education Council and has three parts. The first part discusses what has to be done to improve the Indigenous education system. They state that their funding for education is significantly less than provinces have received. On top of Indigenous language education, the amount of funding is a vital factor in promoting Indigenous education. The second part argues that education is legally under the full control of the Indigenous peoples as the Canadian Constitution and the Indian Act have laid out. The current practices are undermining the autonomy and sovereignty of Indigenous peoples. Also, in response to some Canadian scholars recommending the use of a school board system, this report details an alternative structure of education governance.
The supporting sources used are similar to other reports discussed in this bibliography, employing scholarly articles from various fields as well as legal and governmental documents to support the presented claims. For those interested in the topic, this document is important for understanding the platform of First Nations and the ongoing debate between the Canadian federal government and Indigenous groups on the topic of education.
Kirkness, Verna J., and Sheena Selkirk Bowman. First Nations and Schools: Triumphs and Struggles. Toronto: Canadian Education Association, 1992.
This book is a collection of reports which focuses on the topic of Indigenous education in Canada. The source includes a wide range of reports on education policy, current practices of indigenous pedagogy, and educational performances. The author argues that Indigenous education has been undermined for over 300 years and should be revitalized in some way for a harmonious future between the Canadian state and First Nations. Through primary sources and surveys with Indigenous children, this book details the history of Indigenous education and the challenges that it faces today. This source is not a comprehensive history of Indigenous education in Canada, but it provides vital context for researchers in Indigenous education policy and pedagogy.
The authors have a simple argument, but it was strongly supported by the gathered data. Their findings ranged from native-language instruction to community involvement in federal day schools. All findings have pointed out that Indigenous culture, languages, and values are completely left out in the current system, and it has created an identity crisis for young Indigenous students and an inheritance crisis for the band. As both teachers and researchers, the authors executed their investigations in a professional and critical way, making this an essential source for future researchers in Indigenous education history, policy, and pedagogy.
Mendelson, Michael. Why We Need a First Nation Education Act. Ottawa: Caledon Institute of Social Policy, 2009. https://maytree.com/wp-content/uploads/820ENG.pdf.
This report focuses on the technical details of how to achieve “Indian controlled Indian education.” Mendelson argues that the choice of education is a fundamental right embedded in the Canadian Constitution, and that Indigenous Nations need to establish systematic and financial structures to support Indigenous education. Most of the sources to support his argument and ideas are secondary sources, including journal articles in education policy and economics. He also used examples such as the Cree School Board and British Columbia’s approach to education governance to say that Indigenous education could achieve autonomy through good mechanisms and adequate funding from the government. Those practices are mutually beneficial for the First Nation and the federal government.
His arguments are well supported. Quantitative data, including past findings and qualitative data like the example of the Cree School Board show the effectiveness of the school board’s mechanism for First Nation, and of continuous funding from the federal government. This source is important for anyone who is interested in the rationale behind Bill C-33 (2014), as the work is often cited in the Senate report. It is worth mentioning that this source analyzes the issue of Indigenous education from the Canadian government’s point of view, and overlooks the importance of the nation-to-nation relationship.
Milloy, John S. A National Crime: The Canadian Government and the Residential School System, 1879–1986. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1999.
The residential school system is a combined product of white supremacy and the Indian Act. Milloy utilizes church records, internal memoranda, and department documents to show that the residential school system was an inferior form of education that failed to live up to the government’s promises to provide proper education to Indigenous children. He argues that the residential school system was flawed due to it often being in a state of mismanagement and chaos. Milloy uses his archival-research work to support his argument, which contains documents such as complaint letters and field inspector reports. The argument is well-developed. The comprehensiveness of the archive sources used provide a panoramic view of the residential school system and make it a holistic work for anyone who researches the topic.
Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development. Developing a First Nation Education Act: A Blueprint for Legislation. Gatineau, QC: Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, July 2013. http://www.mushkegowuk.com/documents/fneducationblueprint.pdf.
In 2013, the federal government had an interest in reforming the Indigenous education system, and this source is their response. In the blueprint, the Ministry introduced and annotated the draft of the bill. The core ideas are the following; firstly, the ministry will set a minimum standard and the First Nation’s education program. Secondly, it will also provide support such as credential recognition for Indigenous students to enter post-secondary school more easily as well as the long-awaited funding. Finally, the draft ensures that the guardianship of the Indigenous parents will be respected, and that the First Nation is the main body developing the program.
This document once again demonstrates that the paternalistic position of the federal government has remained to this today. The source is valuable as it is the most recent action that the federal government took to tackle Indigenous education issues. One thing particular to this document is that the bill was put on hold until now because of heavy opposition from Indigenous peoples. The latter held a conference saying they were never consulted on the draft, and the draft disregards the sovereignty of Indigenous Nations. This is completely opposite as the source expressed as the blueprint claimed they had consulted the First Nation.
McPherson, Dennis. “Transfer of jurisdiction for education: A paradox in regard to the constitutional entrenchment of Indian rights to education and the existing treaty No. 3 rights to education.” LL.M. Thesis. University of Ottawa, 1997. http://dx.doi.org/10.20381/ruor-10227.
This source looks into the legal technicality on the transfer of jurisdiction from the federal government to the Treaty 3 Council. McPherson argues that education is a constitutional right of Indigenous peoples, and that it was not actualized until the day of the transfer. The author deploys legal codes and minutes of the negotiations and meetings to analyze the event. He felt that the negotiation and the transfer of education symbolizes that the First Nation is gaining its citizenship through taking responsibility for themselves, rather having the Canadian government act paternalistically.
McPherson’s thesis is well-supported though it has become the consensus in the field. Still, there is not much research in education law, especially considering this piece contains a large amount of legal research. This work is ideal for researchers wishing to take a closer look at law and Indigenous education.
Niezen, Ronald. Truth and Indignation: Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Indian Residential Schools. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013.
This book discusses the journey of recognizing and acknowledging the tragedy of the residential school system in Canada. Niezen investigates the artificial factors that caused the death of residential school students. He argues that the residential school system has not only diminished the identity and cultural esteem of its students, but it also enabled physical and mental abuse to be inflicted upon Indigenous children, which has resulted in generational trauma that continues to impact Indigenous communities. He further questions the role of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in reconciliation with the victims of the residential school system. By deploying a wide range of methods and sources, including church records and Indigenous oral histories, the book revealed specific cases and found patterns in the residential school system. This book is a great resource when studying the Indian residential school system and also contemporary federal-Indigenous relations.
Sellars, Bev. They Called Me Number One: Secrets and Survival at an Indian Residential School. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2013.
Sellars’ book is a primary source, written about her experience as an Indigenous woman living in Canada. Most of the chapters are dedicated to her experience in the residential school system in the 1960s. There is no overarching argument in the book; rather, it contains several reoccurring themes. The first theme is the abusive nature of the residential school system, both mentally and culturally. Sellars had been forced to convert to Christianity at one point, and although she felt very uncomfortable, she was not given a choice. Another theme is reconciliation. As her time in the residential school system ended, she had a hard time rejoining society due to the anger she felt towards the Canadian government, emotions that the publication of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission only further complicated. The book is an impactful autobiography of her traumatic experience. For those researching the details of the residential school system’s impact on the individual, this is a perfect source to provide pertinent and important information.
Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples. Reforming First Nations Education: From Crisis to Hope. Ottawa: Senate of Canada, Dec 2011. https://sencanada.ca/content/sen/committee/411/appa/rep/rep03dec11-e.pdf.
This report, produced by the Senate of Canada, is intended to provide an account of the issue of Indigenous education to the Canadian government. It describes both the history of Indigenous education in Canada, as well as the current system, in addition to admitting to the abusive nature of the residential school system and calling for action to establish an education system controlled by Indigenous people and supported by a federal funding framework. The report also states that the current Indigenous education system should be strengthened through administrative reform and enhanced accountability. The report was mostly drawn from other meeting proceedings where “witnesses” have spoken on the things that support the Senate position.
This source is similar to Mendelson’s report, as both encourage the federal government to reform the Indigenous education system, while still placing education under the common jurisdiction of the band council and the federal government. It is evident that the Senate holds a paternalistic view of Indigenous governance with regards to how the current system is not working, and believes the solution is to replicate the settler system of education. Besides its controversies, this report is still an important document for research in Indigenous education as it presents the federal view of the issue in recent years.
White, Jerry P., Julie Peters, and Dan Beavon. “Enhancing Educational Attainment for First Nations Children.” In Aboriginal Education: Current Crisis and Future Alternatives, edited by Jerry P. White, Julie Peters, Dan Beavon, and Nicholas Spence, 117-174.Toronto: Thompson Educational Publishing, Inc., 2009. https://ir.lib.uwo.ca/aprci/18/.
This report is cited in the First Nations Education Council report on improving Indigenous education (first bibliographic entry). For this report, the researchers used both quantitative and qualitative data to recommend ways to promote educational attainment among First Nations children. Besides points such as increasing funding, they also emphasize the importance of stable and understanding community governance to support the school system and improve its quality of education. They also believe that if testing is used in a positive way, teachers would receive feedback on their teaching methods and monitor class progress. This report is well written, and the points are well supported. One major difference that made this report unique is that it utilizes the provincial education system as a tool to improve Indigenous education, rather than suggesting subordinating the latter to the former as another report suggests. This report is also useful to see the current standing of Indigenous education and the challenges that they are facing.