Free Aboriginal Education is Not a Treaty Entitlement

Aboriginal Futures, Commentary, Education, Joseph Quesnel, Role of Government

With Indian treaties, it is important to separate rhetoric from reality. A case in point is the federal government’s recent trial balloon to turn post-secondary grants for First Nation students into repayable loans. In other words, indigenous students would go through a student loan system administered by the provinces just like everyone else.

Predictably, First Nation students and leaders are upset at the proposed change; they argue they have a “treaty right” to free post-secondary education. “Why should you pay back a loan for something that is a right?” said Sagkeeng First Nation Chief Donovan Fontaine recently in the Winnipeg Free Press.

Treaties are lawful agreements signed between an Indian tribe and the Crown, so they should be honoured. However, the treaties should not be liberally interpreted with historic revisionism to include entitlements never envisioned. For example, while the numbered treaties signed by tribes across the Prairies with the Crown mention education, this refers to educational services on reserves and likely was intended to mean lower education.

Treaty 9, which is explicit on this point, states that the government’s obligation was to provide for, “such salaries of teachers to instruct the children of said Indians.”

Such a reading leaves the clear impression that such a provision is for elementary and perhaps secondary education. It’s a stretch to suppose they were meant to be read as providing for free post-secondary funding.

In contrast, the treaties do mention specific benefits such as annual payments, government provision for agricultural implements and rights to hunting grounds.

Still, the leap in logic permeates the minds of many indigenous leaders who treat post-free secondary as an entitlement.

There is a general problem here and it is that First Nation leaders have a selective approach to treaties. Provisions over benefits, such as annuities, are read as literally as possible; yet specific mentions of First Nations having to “cede, release, surrender, and yield” their rights forever to the Government of Canada are explained away.

So some indigenous leaders and scholars re-write history to argue First Nations could never have given up their rights to the land as they never held a concept of “ceding land.” The public, politicians and press are told “everything is given by the Creator, so it cannot be given away.”

Except that it was no secret that when such treaties were signed, they were about tribes giving up rights to larger tracts of land for non-Aboriginal settlement in exchange for specific benefits.

Kenneth Tyler, a lawyer and legal scholar in the area of Aboriginal and treaty rights, writing in “Will Delgamuukw Eclipse the Prairie Sun?” provides documented conversations between colonial officials and Indian leaders. There, it is obvious that the tribes involved understood that the central purpose of the numbered treaties was the purchase of land and land surrenders. The language is clear in stressing that the treaties were about the surrendering of rights and lands. Any other interpretation is self-interest wrapped in present political purposes.

On the tuition question, while it is evident that many in First Nations need more education to succeed in society, there are alternate ways for governments to ensure that happens than to provide it as an entitlement unavailable to other Canadians.

Presently, funding for students is often disbursed through band councils. This often means access to such money is subject to political considerations: Those who come from the wrong family or are a “trouble-maker,” might find they are without school funds. The Conservative plan to end such transfers is positive as it would mean First Nations students would instead receive loan money directly from provincial and federal student loan programs, ending a now-present invitation to corruption.

If First Nation students have to pay for their own post-secondary education this will not be the end of the world. In fact, it may be the start of a better one. As anyone forced to pay for their own post-secondary education knows, that makes one a better steward of one’s money. Also, students will think twice about which academic program to pursue.

First Nation students must become responsible and leave the world of entitlements. Morally, this is good—and useful, as entitlements can diminish character; “free” money can and does discourage people from taking responsibility for their own choices, lives, and in this case—their own careers.

Rather than creatively revise historic treaties and perpetuate a culture of entitlement, First Nation leaders should encourage the youth to take responsibility for their own education.