Media Release – Reinterpreting Indian Control of Indian Education: Accelerating Indigenous Educational Achievement through Choice

A newly released Frontier Centre study looks at the state of Aboriginal education and argues that any reforms should put the Aboriginal family in the driver’s seat by emphasizing choice and innovation.


Lethbridge and Winnipeg: The Frontier Centre for Public Policy released today Reinterpreting Indian Control of Indian Education: Accelerating Indigenous Educational Achievement through Choice.

In this policy study, Frontier policy analyst Joseph Quesnel, with assistance from past Frontier intern Meredith Lilly, analyzes the current debate surrounding the improvement of Aboriginal education. This topic is more pressing given the release of a Senate report on Aboriginal education this past December and the release of a national report on elementary and secondary First Nation education in early February. Recently, federal support for funding parity has brought band schools to the news.

Quesnel mentions how despite provisions in the federal Indian Act for First Nations education, the Aboriginal Affairs bureaucracy does not enforce meaningful standards or accountability in education. Ever since the Indian residential schools experience and the release of the landmark Indian Control of Indian Education paper by the National Indian Brotherhood (now the Assembly of First Nations) in the 1970s, Ottawa has not created an Aboriginal education system, fearing accusations of imposing ‘assimilation’ on Native bands. Consequently, many experts agree, for long Ottawa has limited its role to simply “sending cheques.”

The federal government now has expressed intentions to reform the Aboriginal education “system.” In light of those intentions, Quesnel makes the case that now is the best time to re-think what we mean by Indian control of Indian education. It should not simply mean band councils or education authorities control Aboriginal education. Indigenous families should be in the driver’s seat. It implies that funding for First Nations education should not always flow through band governments, but should follow the student to where he or she goes, if there is room in an accessible school within the region.  

In fact, all Aboriginal families, like all Canadian families, deserve a maximum range of educational options. The default option should not always be the band school, especially if parents have concerns about under-performing band-operated schools.

“Indigenous alternatives, such as independent, magnet, or charter schools are neglected options,” writes Quesnel. “Most importantly, all options must be considered within an environment of choice for Aboriginal parents. It must also mean Aboriginal students, including those living on-reserve, have the option of attending public schools in their region.”

For this study, Quesnel examined various options. Independent or charter schools are one option. Currently only Alberta allows charter schools, but all provinces should explore that alternative and so should the federal government in the case of First Nations education. While not a panacea, charter schools, for example, have a good record of improving student achievement among disadvantaged populations, according to the data.

Quesnel presents the case study of Mother Earth’s Children’s Charter School (MECCS) for insights. As Canada’s only indigenous charter school, MECCS is an example of what opportunities could exist to tailor curriculum for indigenous students. MECCS is located on an off-reserve site near Edmonton and takes in students mainly from a nearby First Nation and the surrounding area using a unique funding agreement. While still facing challenges, MECCS is well positioned for future success and provides insights for educators. Moreover, the United States, which is ahead of Canada in school choice, has been experimenting with indigenous charter schools for many years and has some notable success stories, including a Native Hawaiian system.

The chief advantage of charter schools –from the U.S. data– is that they help those students who are most in need.

“Of particular interest is the benefit that charter schools bring to economically

and otherwise disadvantaged groups. Achievement in terms of standardized results is higher for students at schools that serve disadvantaged students,” writes Quesnel.

A major 2011 study by Mathematica Policy Research, a non-partisan research firm, found that charter middle schools that serve the most economically disadvantaged students—especially in urban areas—were more successful than those charter schools that tended to serve only the most advantaged.

Conversely, Quesnel cites credible data showing that sometimes Aboriginal students are not well-served by Aboriginal-only environments, so the answer may not be indigenous schools in all cases.

For all these reasons, and because all indigenous students are not served by the same models, policy makers and indigenous governments should work toward maximizing choices for Aboriginal parents.

Download a copy of Reinterpreting Indian Control of Indian Education: Accelerating Indigenous Educational Achievement through Choice HERE.

For more information and to arrange an interview with the study's author, media (only) should contact:

Joseph Quesnel
403.381.0342 Land

403.360.3078 Cell


Marco Navarro-Genie

Director of Research


Joseph Quesnel, is a policy analyst at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy who focuses on Aboriginal matters. He is from the Sudbury region of Northern Ontario and has Métis ancestry from Quebec. He graduated from McGill University in 2001, where he majored in political science and history. He specialized in Canadian and U.S. politics, with an emphasis on constitutional law. He is currently completing his master of journalism at Carleton University in Ottawa, where he specialized in political reporting. For two years, he covered House standing committees as well as Senate committees. His career in journalism includes several stints at community newspapers in Northern Ontario, including Sudbury and Espanola. He completed internships at CFRA 580 AM, a talk radio station in Ottawa, and the Cable Public Affairs Channel. He is a past journalist with the Drum/First Perspective, a nationally distributed Aboriginal publication. He currently writes an opinion column for the publication. He writes a weekly column for the Winnipeg Sun and contributes to The Taxpayer, the flagship publication of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation


Meredith Lilly was a recent intern at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. She is currently pursuing her Master of Arts degree in political theory at the University of Calgary, where she is studying totalitarianism and bureaucracy. She graduated from the University of Toronto in 2009 with a Bachelor of Arts (Hon.) in political science. She worked as an intern at the Fraser Institute and the Prairie Policy Centre and has supplemented her education with many seminars and colloquiums.

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