With education comes opportunity

Commentary, Joseph Quesnel

The federal government has recently shown its willingness to help First Nations education in Manitoba.

Ottawa announced it is entering into a partnership with four northern Manitoba First Nations. The Indigenous communities are Bunibonibee Cree Nation (Oxford House), God's Lake First Nation (God's Lake Narrows), Manto Sipi Nation (God's River), and Wasagamak First Nation (Wasagamak).

The money injected will go towards the construction and renovation of northern schools.

Manitoba First Nations, in turn, should support the federal government by attempting to salvage the First Nation Education Act, an initiative that was panned by many Indigenous chiefs earlier this year. Chiefs did not like the way the bill was developed and supported by the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) under National Chief Shawn Atleo. Atleo himself eventually lost the support of the chiefs in time. Many of them wanted the cash injection but not the changes to the system. Knowing that the chiefs wanted all the cash without the accountability that came with it, the federal government pulled the historic bill.

On-reserve schools, for the most part, lack standards and enforcement mechanisms. The Indian Act itself does not say much about First Nations education.

The First Nation Control of First Nations Act, as the proposed legislation was supposed to be called, was an historic initiative intended to fix the broken Aboriginal education system. The bill also came with predictable funding.

While not perfect, the proposed bill was a good compromise between the federal government and First Nations. Indigenous leaders and activists should not expect everything they wanted in this new bill. That is not how negotiation works. There has to be some give and take involved.

Perhaps Manitoba First Nations could offer some kind of middle ground on the initiative. After all, what have they got to lose? Graduation rates are abysmal.

Manitoba's First Nation community is certainly in dire need of some good news. Improved graduation rates could really help raise spirits within the community. According to regional updates obtained by the Canadian Free Press through Access to Information legislation, well over half of First Nation children in Manitoba grow up in poverty and have the lowest graduation rates in Canada.

Those updates show that indeed Manitoba is the worst place for First Nations to live.

Education is certainly one ticket out of a life of poverty. First Nations in Manitoba should be lining up to support any meaningful reform to the dysfunctional on-reserve education system. Calvin Helin, a noted First Nation author from British Columbia, stated that for Aboriginal peoples as the education levels rise so does median income, just like any community. Education levels and median incomes are higher among Aboriginals living off reserve. Meaningful change to the First Nation education system would help bring those blessings to the on-reserve population as well.

Helin noted in his landmark book Dances with Dependency that educational attainment is indeed vital for the economic well-being of individuals and nations.

Thus, any plan to advance the First Nation community should include a comprehensive education strategy.

Manitoba First Nations would set a good example for other Indigenous communities in other provinces by supporting that strategy.

This op ed was originally published by The Winnipeg Sun on Friday, March 27, 2015: http://www.winnipegsun.com/2015/03/27/with-education-comes-opportunity