This is a piece I wrote for my internship at the Christian Reformed Centre for Public Dialogue this winter. The original is here. Enjoy, and check out other articles available on Mobile Justice. If you are interested in learning more about the challenges facing Aboriginal people in Canada, check out Mythperceptions, a great MCC site!
Reconciliation, Education, and UNDRIP
Reconciliation is not a one step process. It is a continual journey of moving forward, together. This is certainly true for relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada. Saying sorry is a wonderful first step in this journey, but it is only a beginning. Thankfully, we have a roadmap to guide us on this often unfamiliar path. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP), endorsed by the Canadian government in late 2010, provides a number of clear articles that help us understand what a reconciled relationship looks like when it comes to policy decisions, especially in the area of education.
Former Assembly of First Nations (AFN) Grand Chief Phil Fontaine states that the Declaration is “a living instrument that contains hope for change and a promise of social justice for Indigenous peoples around the world.” It reminds us that part of reconciliation is ensuring that Indigenous people’s human rights are respected in the same manner as non-Aboriginal people. Canadians can compare the standards set out in the Declaration with our current policies and practices to gain clear direction for where we must act to achieve justice for Indigenous peoples.
According to Article 14 of the Declaration, Indigenous peoples have the right to the same standards of education that are enjoyed by all other people within the State. For Aboriginal peoples in Canada, this is an important area where reconciliation in policy is needed. Currently, many Aboriginal communities lack the same access to educational infrastructure and support that non-Aboriginal Canadians take for granted. Access to education is a complicated matter. Aboriginal education on reserves is funded by the federal government. However, providing education to non-Aboriginal children is a provincial responsibility. In theory, both levels are mandated to provide the same quality of education. In reality, however, this division has created two educational systems, one that works and one that often does not.
Data show that children on reserves receive $2000-$3000 less per student than students attending school off-reserve. The results of these shortfalls are devastating. Children are forced to attend schools that are in deplorable condition, because there is no money to fix them. In many schools, overcrowding, mould, high carbon dioxide levels, sewage fumes, frozen pipes, unheated portables, and students suffering from cold and frost bite are common. Due to federal funding formulas, there are no funds for libraries, playgrounds, technology, or special education and no resources for Aboriginal curriculum development. As a result of this lack of basic resources, there is a growing educational gap between Aboriginal peoples living on reserve and the rest of Canada.
Aboriginal people and partner organizations have consistently called for change in education policies. They recognize that education represents opportunities for the future and that learning plays a key role in building healthy families and communities. According to the UNDRIP, Aboriginal people have the right to control of education in their own language, in a manner appropriate to their own methods of teaching and learning. Education that is grounded in a framework of holistic, life-long learning is key to ensuring that Aboriginal people are proud of who they are and able to fully participate in Canadian society. Education policies must reflect and enable these important principles to take place.
There are practical steps that we can take toward reconciliation in education policy, in line with the principles set out in the Declaration. Supporting the Shannen’s Dream campaign is one such step. Shannen Koostachin was a young student from Attawapiskat in northern Ontario who advocated for safe and comfy schools and culturally based education for Aboriginal children and youth. She worked tirelessly to try to convince the federal government to give Aboriginal children a proper education before tragically passing away at the age of 15 years old in 2010. It is now our turn to join her in making this dream a reality. Visit the Shannen’s Dream website to sign on to this campaign.
Anna Vogt recently finished her internship as Research and Advocacy Assistant with the Centre for Public Dialogue. We thank Anna for her excellent work!
Editor’s Note: On May 19, 2011, The Hon. John Duncan, newly reappointed Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, announced funding to “accelerate progress on the detailed design and construction phases of a new elementary school for the Attawapiskat First Nation,” Shannen’s home community. However, Shannen’s Dream was that all First Nation children have access to “safe and comfy” schools and culturally appropriate education. Minister Duncan’s announcement shows both that Shannen’s Dream is achievable and that advocacy is important is achieving this dream. There is still much work to be done to achieve this dream; join me in supporting the Shannen’s Dream campaign.
Phil Fontaine, “A Living Instrument,” in Realizing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples: Triumph, Hope, and Action, ed. Joffe, Paul, Jackie Hartley, and Jennifer Preston, (Saskatoon: Purich Pub, 2010), 10.