Quebec First Nations sign historic education agreement with Ottawa

·5 min read

A five-year, $1.1 billion regional agreement announced July 14 between the First Nations Education Council (FNEC) and the federal government will give 22 First Nations in Quebec financial control over their own education systems.

This agreement is based on a funding formula designed by and for FNEC members over 10 years through a collective process of community self-evaluation. The funding will ensure that the education needs of about 5,800 students from kindergarten to Grade 12 are met based on community models, priorities and realities.

“It’s always better when it comes from the base, when it comes from our roots,” said FNEC Director General Denis Gros-Louis. “There is no one to tell our chiefs and councils what to do in their own community. They have taken charge by signing the agreement. We want to decolonize the way we are teaching.”

Gros-Louis said cultural practices would drive curriculum development, helping youth strengthen their language outside the classroom. The agreement also improves funding for school transportation, specialized resources and the recruitment and retention of teachers.

“History has shown us the many broken promises of governments,” said Gros-Louis. “The assumption of responsibility for education by and for the First Nations that we are celebrating today is our promise to ourselves, to our young people.”

A signing ceremony in Kahnawake began with a speech in Kanien’kéha by the granddaughter of the community’s former director of education, the late Eddie Cross, who tirelessly advocated for Mohawk language and immersion programs, special education policies and school access.

“It couldn’t be more fitting to hold this event today at the Kahnawake Survival School,” said Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador Chief Ghislain Picard. “I remember back in the 1970s when your kids here marched from Châteauguayto say it’s time to take control of our own education. I certainly appreciate the federal minister was very receptive to stand with First Nations on this important issue but there are more challenges ahead.”

Established in 1978 to protest Bill 101, the school is once again a hub for demonstrations in the wake of Bill 96, Quebec’s controversial legislation that restricts languages other than French in the province. At the press conference, concerns about how this law disadvantages First Nations quickly overshadowed the funding agreement.

“For 40 years, we’ve been confronted with linguistic laws and had students unable to graduate with the credits they need,” said Gesgapegiag Chief John Martin. “Bill 96 raises the wall even higher. I’m no lawyer, but it seems to me if Quebec can use the notwithstanding clause within the constitution, why would we as First Nations not have the same right to protect our languages?”

As a former language teacher who struggled to develop materials despite severe underfunding, Martin said communities will now have resources that are closer the provincial average. He called on Ottawa to “stand and support us” in further protecting Indigenous language rights.

Federal Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu repeatedly defended those rights and said she has shared her concerns with the minister responsible in Quebec.

“I was concerned to hear about the chiefs’ perceptions on how provincial legislation might impact their rights to educate their children in the language and culture of their choice,” said Hajdu. “Today’s agreement strengthens their capacity to do that from a financial and self-governance perspective. We can’t be putting barriers in the way of children reaching their full potential.”

Admitting that Canada hasn’t been a good partner over the years, Hajdu expressed admiration for the determination of Indigenous peoples at the negotiating table. She promised the government is committed to long-term and sustainable funding, adding she would work with communities not represented by the FNEC to close education gaps.

“You’ve always known how to teach your children,” Hajdu asserted. “You’ve always known how to lead your communities, and you’ve had so much interference through a colonial partner that has not lived up to its commitments over generations. And our government wants to change that.”

The deal enables communities to fully administer their school systems, increase staffing and improve teacher capacity for classroom technology integration. Objectives include enhancing student success, retention and graduation rates.

Through Indigenous Services Canada, $310.6 million in new funding was announced in this year’s federal budget, complementing approximately $790 million coming through existing education funding streams.

“This is a major step forward for our people, and an honour to have signed this monumental agreement in Kahnawake Mohawk Territory,” stated Kahnawake Grand Chief Kahsennénhawe Sky-Deer. “This agreement will provide Kahnawake with the funding and assistance required for the next five years to ensure our children and young adults get an education that embodies our roots, language and culture.”

FNEC’s 22 member communities include Gesgapegiag, Gespeg, Kahnawake, Kanesatake, Kebaowek, Kitcisakik, Kitigan Zibi, Lac Simon, Listuguj, Long Point, Manawan, Mashteuiatsh, Odanak, Opitciwan, Abitibiwinni, Rapid Lake, Timiskaming, Wemotaci, Wendake, Wolastoqiyik Wahsipekuk, Wolf Lake and Wôlinak.

Created in 1985, FNEC was one of the first community-based Indigenous organizations in Quebec to pursue educational autonomy. Since Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government promised to lift a 2% annual cap on First Nations budgets in 2016, a needs-based approach was gradually developed to provide predictable core funding.

Indigenous leaders are now aiming for similar recognition from Quebec. Picard suggested “it’s almost written in the sky” what will happen after the provincial election October 3, and called on “our most precious ally, the federal government, to stand with us on this key issue.”

“We haven’t closed the door on potential options to intervene on [Bill] 96,” Picard said. “But we understand it’s a very important file, very demanding in terms of how leadership will position itself. It’s still very much in the minds of many chiefs.”

Patrick Quinn, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Nation