Education Critical to Moving Forward

By Doug Cuthand

This week the FSIN will host a major education conference in Saskatoon. The conference will include guest speakers from the United States and across Canada and will address a number of issues crucial to the further development of First Nations education.

Saskatchewan has no trouble attracting top aboriginal educators and speakers for a forum on education. Saskatchewan First Nations have a long history of placing a priority on education and today we have some of the most outstanding First Nations educational institutions in the Americas. Saskatchewan is the birthplace of the philosophy of Indian control of education.

In 1972 the revolution began and over the next decade the battle would rage. It all began when the Saskatchewan Chiefs endorsed the document declaring Indian control of Indian education. For the next decade education was identified as a political priority and the change began. Up to this point the federal policy on education had been to integrate First Nations children in the local schools and transfer the responsibility to the provinces. First Nations parents wanted a say in how their children would be educated but instead it was a one-way street that went nowhere. Also at that time there were no institutions that would support further development of First Nations education.

The FSIN received funding for a cultural education centre and it became the focal point. The cultural centre was located in Saskatoon on the university campus; it was a beehive of activity with committed First Nations educators and political animals joining forces to advance the cause.

I remember Ida Wasacase was put in charge of academic programming and the development of a post secondary institution. That was her job description. She would go on to head up the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College in Regina.

Osborne Turner was put in charge of skills training and his work resulted in the development of the Saskatchewan Indian Community College, which later became the Saskatchewan Indian Institute of Technologies.

All this work didn’t fall under the mandate of a cultural centre and the rules were routinely bent and broken much to the dismay of the funding agency, the Department of Indian Affairs. It was poetic justice that the very department that funded the boarding schools and was pushing for integration also held the key to our future education plans.

Meanwhile, the reserve schools were rapidly developing and school strikes were rampant. Numerous First Nations withdrew their children from the local off-reserve school and established clandestine institutions on their own land. These band-controlled schools were a jumble of portable classrooms and trailers but in the end they persevered and became the elementary and high schools we have today. The band-controlled schools were the institutions that drove the larger institutions.

I remember in 1981 attending a graduation for 50 students that received their teaching certificates at Pelican Narrows. The Federated College held an extension program to assist the Peter Ballentyne First Nation to develop its own teachers. Some went on to teach in the band schools and others came south to complete their degrees. It was an example of a program that catapulted the community into controlling their own education program.

While Indian control of education has been a success it is also a race against time and our population growth.

Back in 1972 there were around 40,000 First Nations people in Saskatchewan; today there are over 100,000. Today the province’s aboriginal (Indian and Metis) population is 161,000 and will reach 204,000 by 2011, 250,000 the following decade and 400,000 by 2041. Today one-third of students entering Grade 1 are aboriginal. Thirty-eight per cent of the province’s total student enrolment including university and trades training are First Nations. Close to half of the regional budget of Indian Affairs is allotted to education. This is where Saskatchewan’s future lies.

People who complain of the Indian Affairs budget are not looking at the long term and the good that an educated First Nations population will do for the province. Many Saskatchewan residents also don’t realize the important role our First Nations have made, not only for our development but for the well-being of the province as a whole. The conference will be held Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.