National Chief Shawn Atleo
Chiefs Assembly on Education
October 1, 2012
Palais des Congrès
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[Traditional Greetings and Acknowledgements]
Elders, Chiefs, Educators, Students and all of the people watching us online.
Good morning and thank you for being here today. As I did in my language, I began by thanking the Algonquin peoples on whose territory we gather today.
So today, as we focus on the critical issue of First Nation education and a better future for the next generation, I am really talking about the dreams of all of our ancestors.
Forty years ago, at a gathering very much like this one; the Chiefs in Assembly endorsed a groundbreaking policy paper called Indian Control of Indian Education.
It was more than a statement about the future of First Nations education. It was a direct response to the policy of integration and assimilation which the government of Canada had articulated in a White Paper on Indian Policy in 1969.
The authors of Indian Control noted “Integration viewed as a one-way process is not integration, and will fail. In the past, it has been the Indian student who was asked to integrate: to give up his identity, to adopt new values and a new way of life. This restricted interpretation of integration must be radically altered if future education programs are to benefit Indian children.
We know too well the inter-generational impacts of integration and assimilation policies, including the consequences of residential school. We are living with those impacts today.
Education has been an instrument of oppression used against us, emphasizing the removal of our identities, the fracturing of our families and the elimination of our ways of communication, thinking and being.
The power of education is real and it is tangible.
My late granny knew this well. She passed on so many lessons– she pulled me aside one day and said “grandson – we don’t need to fight our battles with our fists any longer. Now, we fight with education. This is the way we will be strong and we will all win.”
Our challenge this week is to work together to overcome the past and to forever turn education from an instrument of oppression to a tool of liberation.
Let me be absolutely clear: Our children’s success must come first and be the measure of our progress.
No, there have been no backroom deals with the federal government whether on legislation or on anything else.
Our task here is to find common ground to come to a sound and powerful strategy this week in the name of the well-being of our children. You – as the education leaders and Chiefs – we are asking you to bring your hearts and minds together – we ask – can we build consensus here and then continue to drive this forward for confirmation at the Special Chiefs Assembly in December?
This work is not about playing politics – plain and simple, we must collectively agree that no longer will we accept the discrimination that our children face every day in trying to achieve an education in our communities that all other Canadians take for granted.
As our elders teach us, I understand that we must be cautious. And we all know that the Crown has a long history of dividing our people. We must not give the Crown any excuses to not invest in our children.
With the building of First Nations schools across the country, we began to have success. We began to see high school graduates, and many of those graduates made the leap to post-secondary and became today’s political and educational leaders.
The school being built in Attawapiskat is an example of First Nations driving change. Finally – after an entire community and region rallying behind a young leader who tragically lost her life far too soon. Shannen Koostachin’s legacy lives on through the Shannen’s Dream campaign and now through the commitment of a new school for the kids in this northern Ontario community.
Highlighting and celebrating these and other examples of First Nations driving change are critical to building the momentum we need to continue to advance plans based on recognition of First Nation rights and jurisdiction.
And we cannot forget others that support us along the way in the recognition of our rights and jurisdiction. Young Wesley Prankard – a kid of 13 proved to be an inspiration to the need for meaningful and effective partnerships and average Canadians to drive change. Wesley addressed Chiefs, briefly outlining his fundraising efforts to build playgrounds in First Nation communities in northern Ontario. His message was simple and strong – “it’s not about charity, it’s about justice”.
I do not have to tell you that we face tremendous challenges. You know this – I know this. There is no doubt that we must stand absolutely firm and we must stand together on our right to education.
Despite the challenges, I do see opportunity and reason for optimism. I see the drive and energy of our young people, the dedication of the leadership and clarity of vision of our elders.
When our young people do complete high school – they are twice as likely to get a job. When they graduate from university, their earnings triple. AND more importantly, it is these very students that are returning home, starting families and re-building their entire communities to become places of hope, independence and success.
To achieve this success we must drive the change – eliminating outdated federal approaches. Attempts to adopt provincial approaches and guidelines are completely unacceptable and are rejected.
It is time to turn the page on the failed policies and approaches of the past. It is time to give full life and expression to First Nations control of First Nations education.
In July, the Chiefs mandated this Assembly to develop a united national direction on First Nations education. We are absolutely clear on the critical elements: funding; jurisdiction, systems and language.
First Nations schools require a funding guarantee which is accountable to First Nations people, and addresses the actual costs of high quality, culturally relevant education.
The restoration of First Nations jurisdiction over education is imperative if real change is to occur. This means implementing the Treaty right to education and fully respecting our inherent rights and responsibilities to educate and nurture our children.
Our First Nation education systems, where they exist, require recognition and long-term funding support. Where they are emerging, they require the freedom to innovate and respond to community needs rather than be forced to fit a pre-fabricated mould. We must create the space for fully functioning systems that are supported at a broader level not to oversee or restrict but to empower, enable and support transformation at the community level.
And fourth – on language and culture – the leaders from 1972 were so eloquent when they stated:
“Unless a child learns about the forces which shape him: the history of his people, their values and customs, their language, he will never really know himself or his potential as a human being. Indian culture and values have a unique place in the history of mankind. The Indian child who learns about his heritage will be proud of it. The lessons he learns in school, his whole school experience, should reinforce and contribute to the image he has of himself as an Indian.”
Language is the soul of our identity. Any national initiative in education must be built on the core foundation of the recognition of our languages and cultures.
Our goal here together is to build a strategic plan respective of all of our various roles and responsibilities to carry forward and to accomplish these very important goals.
A strategic plan that highlights the principles and the common essential elements as well as details the steps we must all take to respect one another and achieve this change now for our children!
This plan will advance First Nations Control of First Nations Education in a way that is locally determined, regionally driven, and nationally supported.
We are resolute and firm that it will be First Nations who will, on our own terms, determine the rate and pace of the development of any legislation. First Nations will determine the breadth and scope of any education reform initiative, including legislation, within the context of supporting the Assembly’s overall strategic plan and in the context of the standard of free, prior, and informed consent.
There is a great deal at stake.
First Nations view education through the lens of our identity, our languages, our ceremonies, our cultural responsibilities, and our relationship to each other and all of creation. We know that schools can help prepare our young people to assume their responsibilities to themselves, their families, their clans, communities, and nations.
We also know that there are broader economic benefits which will result from improving First Nations education outcomes.
Forty years ago, when I was starting kindergarten in a one room school house in my village of Ahousaht , in 1972, the First Nations leadership presented Indian Control of Indian Education to the Minister of Indian Affairs – a blueprint for change, designed and developed by First Nations peoples.
Now, we must build on this exact foundation. Let us take this opportunity to bring our minds together, build on the issues we have in common, and find a way forward which will benefit our people now and far into the future.
By working together now, we can achieve the vision that our leaders set out so long ago.
I wish you the very best for the duration of this meeting and look forward to listening and to working with you.