Education of Indigenous Peoples in Canada | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Education of Indigenous Peoples in Canada

Before contact with Europeans, Indigenous peoples educated their youth through traditional means — demonstration, group socialization, participation in cultural and spiritual rituals, skill development and oral teachings. The introduction of European classroom-style education as part of a larger goal of assimilation disrupted traditional methods and resulted in cultural trauma and dislocation. Reformers of Indigenous education policies are attempting to reintegrate traditional teachings and provide more cultural and language-based support to enhance and improve the outcomes of Indigenous children in the education system.

Traditional Education

Traditional education among most Indigenous peoples was accomplished using several techniques, including observation and practice, family and group socialization, oral teachings and participation in community ceremonies and institutions. The adults responsible for educating youth included parents, grandparents, members of the extended family and community elders. For example, in Inuit communities, boys received training on the land from senior members of their extended families. Inuk girls learned domestic skills, such as the preparation of skins and pelts for making clothes, cutting and sewing, cooking, food preparation and child-rearing, at the feet of the senior women in their extended families. Most other Indigenous nations had similar teaching techniques.

Where community organization and size warranted it, youth were also educated by members of the group’s ceremonial organizations and societies. Such societies had special obligations such as Fire Keepers (people responsible for guarding and maintain sacred fires in sweat lodges and other spiritual and cultural centres), and passing on histories and religious traditions. The more socially and economically stratified Northwest coastal cultures, such as the Haida and Nuu-chah-nulth, included specialized artisanal and ceremonial roles whose continuation depended on apprentices to learn the appropriate skills and knowledge. Less stratified Indigenous peoples also relied on the training of apprentices to acquire the knowledge for medicines, ceremonies and oral histories.

With these methods, children learned the values, beliefs, skills and knowledge considered necessary for adult life. These techniques continue today, but their importance to many Indigenous peoples has been significantly reduced through 350 years of a formal, European classroom-style of education.

The imposition of European-style education by colonial governments is reflective of entrenched policies of assimilation and cultural destruction (see Indian Act). By using church-led education initiatives, colonial governments sought to reduce Indigenous people’s dependence on subsistence hunting and gathering. With the gradual decline in the fur trade, and the need for increased immigration for western settlement, colonial and national policies sought to eliminate the constant movement of families and communities that the traditional hunting and gathering ways of life demanded. By establishing more or less permanent communities (reserves) and forcing Indigenous children to attend church-run schools (residential schools), colonial and federal governments began the long process of assimilating Indigenous peoples.

Increased immigration, together with the colonial and federal policies to obtain land by surrenders or treaties, contributed to many Indigenous leaders reluctantly accepting that their traditional ways of life were no longer sustainable (see also Numbered Treaties). Furthermore, many leaders perceived the new classroom-style education as a way to equip their youth with the means to survive within new and different economies.

Development of European-style Education, 1600s-1830

In the early 1600s, the formal European-style education of Indigenous children began in New France. Schools were operated by Catholic missionaries from French religious orders such as the Récollets, Jesuits and Ursulines. These schools established a pattern of church involvement in Indigenous education that dominated until after the Second World War. The principal goals of these mission schools were to “civilize” and Christianize Indigenous peoples, whose traditional ways of life were seen as inferior or heathen (non-Christian).

In the late 1700s and early 1800s, Protestant churches also became active in the education of Indigenous children in what is now Canada. From 1763 to 1830, colonial governments dealt with “Indian affairs” through the military, and the provision for formal education for Indigenous youth was minimal. After 1830, when administration was transferred to the secretary of state for the colonies, some money was diverted to education by means of donations to church organizations. This funding allowed the building of rudimentary schools, also known as mission schools, in pre-reserve Indigenous settlements. Missionaries provided instruction that was often a combination of Christian doctrine and basic literacy and numeracy.

Residential Schools, 1830s to 1996

Beginning in the 1830s, the settler churches, mainly the Roman Catholic and Anglican denominations, in cooperation with the colonial governments and later the federal government, began to establish residential schools. Some Inuit children were educated in mission schools in Labrador as early as the 1790s; however, formal European-style education for Inuit youth only began on a national scale in the 1950s with the construction of elementary and residential schools throughout major settlements in the Arctic, including Baffin Island. By 1900, in the rest of Canada, there were 64 residential schools, staffed by missionary teachers who gave vocational, manual and religious instruction. These schools were seen by colonial, and later federal, authorities as the ideal system for educating Indigenous youth because they removed children from the influences of traditional family and culture. The assimilative practices of the schools reinforced the general government policy to assimilate Indigenous peoples into colonial society.

Whenever authorities tasked with the removal of children arrived in Indigenous communities, some parents hid their children to prevent them from being taken away to residential schools. The regime was uniformly harsh and cruel. Students were physically punished for any kind of disobedience, and schools forbade them to use Indigenous languages and actively made them feel ashamed of their Indigenous identities. Many children also suffered sexual abuse in residential schools. Furthermore, there is evidence that numerous children either died at residential school or died at home from illnesses contracted during their time at a residential school.

In the 1970s, the government began to close residential schools across Canada. In the Arctic, the decrease in the prevalence of residential schools led to a school-construction program by the federal government in most Inuit villages and hamlets by 1970. The Gordon Residential School in Saskatchewan closed in 1996, making it the last residential school to shut its doors. On 1 June 2008, the federal government established a five-year Truth and Reconciliation Commission to enable residential school survivors to share their stories in a safe environment and to educate Canadians about residential schools and their impact on Indigenous peoples.

Reserve Schools and Provincial Schools, 1867-1972


After 1867, education for Indigenous youth fell into two categories: education for status Indians, which became a federal responsibility under the Constitution and various treaties, and education for non-status Indian, Inuit and Métis youth, which became a provincial or territorial responsibility. By 1900, there were 226 federally-funded day schools on reserves. The majority of teachers were missionaries and the curriculum continued to feature a large proportion of religious instruction as introduced by the earlier mission schools. By the 1930s, the curriculum began to be more closely patterned on that of the non-Indigenous provincial schools.

By 1940, statistics revealed that few status Indian children were benefiting from their formal education experiences. Many children were repeating three or four grades in elementary school, and only a small percentage were graduating and going on to high school. Following a major review of Indigenous education in the late 1940s, the federal government, in cooperation with provincial education authorities, established a policy of education integration and federal funds were provided to enable students to attend provincial elementary and high schools. Provincially-certified teachers replaced non-certified teachers (mostly missionaries) in reserve schools, and all reserve schools adhered to the curriculum for the province in which they were located. The expectation was that by removing students from the poorly staffed, inadequately equipped, heavily church-oriented day schools, assimilation would be accelerated and the education outcomes of students would improve. Enrolments in provincial schools rose rapidly and by 1960, there were about 10,000 Indigenous students attending off-reserve provincial schools.

Numerous problems became evident in the program, which led parents and community leaders to re-evaluate its usefulness. Although the qualifications of provincial teachers were superior to the pre-1950s missionary instructors, they lacked specialized training to teach Indigenous students effectively. Indigenous parents criticized the removal of children to boarding homes — in many cases, several hundred kilometres away — as well as the daily commuting by bus to attend provincial schools. Most Indigenous students were not achieving success: in 1967, there were only 200 Indigenous students enrolled in Canadian universities out of a total Indigenous student population of about 60,000.

Unlike status Indian youth, Métis and non-status Indian youth were required to attend regular provincial and territorial schools as soon as the schools became established. The Indian Act prevented Métis and non-status Indian students from attending schools on reserve. There is little evidence to indicate whether their education outcomes were significantly better than those of status Indian youth.

Indigenous-Led Education, 1972-2010s

In 1972, the National Indian Brotherhood (now known as the Assembly of First Nations) produced a policy on Indigenous education called Indian Control of Indian Education. The policy was subsequently adopted by the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development (now Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada) as an unofficial education policy. It identified the importance of local community control to improve education, the need for more Indigenous teachers, the development of relevant curricula and teaching resources in Indigenous schools, and the importance of language instruction and Indigenous values in Indigenous education.

Since the presentation of the policy, several changes have occurred. In 1972, the University of Saskatchewan’s Indian Teacher Education Program (ITEP) — the first program of its kind — began admitting Indigenous students. Reserve schools began to offer Indigenous-language classes. Teacher education programs to increase the number of Indigenous teachers have been established in several universities in Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. According to the Assembly of First Nations (2010), there were more than 515 First Nation elementary and high schools in Canada serving over 100,000 Indigenous students on reserves. This shows an increase of 60 on-reserve schools since July 2000.

Efforts of Indigenous leaders and educators to acquire the authority for the education of their children have contributed to federal and provincial legislation that formalizes the local jurisdiction of education for First Nations communities. The Nisga’a Final Agreement, which came into force in 2000 in BC; the Mi’kmaq Education Act in Nova Scotia in 1997–98; and the joint federal-provincial First Nations Education Act and First Nations Jurisdiction over Education in BC Act in 2007 enabled communities that are signatories to make education laws for their schools within defined limits.

In 2014, the federal government introduced Bill C-33, the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act. The bill promised, among other proposals, funding for Indigenous education and better standards of quality for education in Indigenous schools. The Assembly of First Nations rejected it, claiming the government developed the bill without adequate consultation. Many critics of the Act argued that it failed to reduce government involvement in First Nations education. Bill C-33 therefore did not gather wide support among Indigenous communities.

In November of 2015, the federal government announced its plan to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). The declaration addresses Indigenous education in Articles 14 and 21, and covers issues such as access to education, Indigenous language instruction, socioeconomic conditions and more. Implementing UNDRIP will require new legislation and ongoing negotiations between the federal government and Indigenous nations.

On 16 August 2017, the federal government and 23 First Nations signed the Anishinabek Education Agreement Act, which granted participating Indigenous nations the power to control education on their reserves. (These First Nations also signed a complementary agreement with the Ontario government.) This historic agreement will no longer subject participating First Nations to sections of the Indian Act that concern education. Under the Anishinabek Education Agreement Act, participating First Nations agreed to create the Anishinabek Education System — a system that promotes Anishinaabe culture and language, as well as provides all other necessary educational supports to students. Launched on 1 April 2018, the Anishinabek Education System serves about 2,000 on-reserve students, from kindergarten to Grade 12.

Elementary and High Schools

Indigenous-led education has provided the opportunity for Indigenous peoples to create and run their own school boards. As a result of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement in 1976, the Cree School Board was created. It is the largest First Nations-controlled school board in Canada. Despite the fact that the education of status Indians on reserves is under federal jurisdiction (Section 91 of the Constitution Act), the Cree School Board operates under Québec education jurisdiction (Section 93 of the Constitution Act). The board is funded jointly by Québec and Ottawa.

The Kativik School Board was also created by the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement to provide elementary and secondary education within an Inuit environment for children in 14 schools in Nunavik in northern Québec. In addition, the board provides adult education and post-secondary education programs. The creation of Nunavut in 1999 has led to an Inuit-controlled government that is working to achieve an education system that is more Inuit-based and Inuit-defined than the previous territorially defined education system and programs. Inuit education programs, unlike those in other schools for Indigenous people, identify the Inuit language Inuktitut as the language of instruction for part or all of the primary grades. In spite of this pedagogical innovation, education for Inuit youth has been impeded by problems similar to those encountered by other Indigenous students.

Indeed, there is much that still needs to be done to improve Indigenous children’s access to education as well as the quality of that education. In March 2016, the CBC reported that First Nations students receive 30 per cent less funding than non-Indigenous children in Canada. Funding gaps prevent school officials from providing Indigenous students with adequate care, education and support for those who must leave their reserves in order to attend school away from their home communities. A suicide crisis among Indigenous youth, many of whom were forced to leave their hometown to go to school far away, has brought this issue to the fore. Between 2000 and 2011, seven Indigenous students attending federally-funded private schools killed themselves. In the spring of 2016, Attawapiskat First Nation in Ontario declared a state of emergency after 11 young people tried to end their lives by suicide. While suicide in these cases has multiple social and individual causes, social inequity and as historic and ongoing loss of cultural identity are among the main challenges many Indigenous students face on a daily basis. (See also Suicide among Indigenous Peoples in Canada).

Post-secondary Education

Since the late 1960s, post-secondary education in Canada has made efforts to incorporate Indigenous histories and studies into their courses. In 1969, Trent University in Peterborough became the first Canadian university to establish a Native Studies program. A majority of colleges and universities currently offer similar programs or departments across Canada. In 1973, the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College (SIFC), part of the University of Regina, became the first Indigenous-controlled degree-granting post-secondary education institution in Canada. In 2003, SIFC became a stand-alone chartered university — the First Nations University of Canada. There are several First Nations community colleges throughout Canada, which provide an array of post-secondary education programs for Indigenous students, occasionally in conjunction with provincially chartered universities or community colleges.

Indigenous Affairs and Northern Development Canada provides some funding for some Indigenous students (status Indians and some Inuit) for post-secondary education through the Post-Secondary Student Support Program (PSSSP). Between 1997 and 2009, the number of students funded through the program declined from 22,938 to 18,729, but graduates from the program increased from 3,644 in 1997 to 3,803 in 2008. Studies conducted by the Assembly of First Nations have shown that lack of adequate funding seriously impedes access to the program. They argue that the program’s capped budget leaves behind thousands of students who are prepared but have not been able to enroll in the PSSSP.

Moving Forward: Challenges and Change

Isadore Charters

Improving the educational outcomes of Indigenous youth in Canada has been an ongoing challenge for more than a century. It is evident that major reforms will be required before substantive positive changes in the Indigenous graduation rates and outcomes at the secondary and post-secondary education levels will emerge. Some argue that federal and provincial authorities must seek advice and direction from Indigenous leaders and parents on key questions on the purpose and value of a formal education for Indigenous children. This includes addressing intergenerational trauma faced by the children and grandchildren of residential school survivors. Failure to adequately do so will extend the assumption that provincial education regimes and policies are not only appropriate for the education of Indigenous children, but are the primary methods by which these children should be educated.

For Indigenous students to benefit from their formal education, several reforms are necessary. The majority of First Nation schools operate with extremely limited support in either second-level or third-level education services. Ordinary provincial and territorial schools enjoy a full range of these education services in pedagogy, administration, supervision and research provided by both school board and ministries or departments of education. Indigenous pedagogies will require further research to be applied in the curriculum and Indigenous school policies. A change in the focus of teaching resources and school curricula may incorporate and reinforce the culture and values that Indigenous children acquire within the family. Provincial teacher training programs are beginning to incorporate cultural dynamics in Indigenous classrooms as a key element in the preparation of teachers for Indigenous schools. Education policies at the local and urban levels are also expanding opportunities in technical and vocational programs. Greater consideration is being given to instructing children in primary grades in the language of the home and community, particularly in areas where the Indigenous language is in danger of becoming extinct.

As the proportion of Indigenous youth in provincial and territorial schools increase, due in part to migration to urban communities, provincial and territorial education authorities will be required to develop specific policies and programs to insure that Indigenous youth achieve improved education outcomes. Efforts to create urban Indigenous high schools in Edmonton, Winnipeg and Saskatoon have contributed to stronger student retention rates as a result of their emphasis on culture, language and student remediation.

Efforts to alienate Indigenous peoples from their culture have not promoted learning in the formal education process. Similarly, the unilateral imposition of provincial education regimes and policies in all Indigenous schools continues to be a major obstacle impeding the successful education of Indigenous children.

Recent Directions

In 2009, Shannen Koostachin (born 12 July 1994; died 1 June 2010), a 15-year old Cree girl from Attawapiskat First Nation in Ontario, went to Parliament to demand better education for Indigenous students. The only elementary school in her hometown had been closed down for many years, forcing the students into portables. Some students, including Koostachin, left their hometown in order to receive a better education. Koostachin wanted Indigenous children to have more than this, to have a “comfy” school experience. Although her life was short lived — Koostachin died in a car accident at the age of 15 — her message about better education for Indigenous children lives on. Shannen’s Dream, the organization founded in Koostachin’s honour, continues to put forward demands for better education, schools and resources for Indigenous children. Along with its allies, the organization was instrumental in the construction of a new elementary school in Attawapiskat. Construction began on 22 June 2012 — the same day that Kootachin would have graduated from high school. The Kattawapiskak Elementary School opened in the summer of 2014. For all of her efforts, Koostachin has earned a spot on the list of top 150 Canadians in 2017.

In September 2016, the University of Winnipeg in Manitoba and Lakehead University in Ontario mandated Indigenous learning for all their undergraduate students. At both universities, students must take at least one Indigenous studies course in order to graduate.

The James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement (JBNQA) laid out provisions for the creation of school boards in Indigenous communities in northern Quebec. This included the creation of the Kativik Ilisarniliriniq (Kativik School Board) in Nunavik in 1975. In 1978, the Cree School Board was established under the Quebec Education Act. These changes were later enshrined in the Education Act for Cree, Inuit and Naskapi Native Persons. In December 2016, the Manitoba First Nations Education Resource Centre worked with First Nations in Manitoba to establish the Manitoba First Nations School System. Although they must still follow the provincial curriculum, these First Nations can add customized language and history courses and more. Not every First Nation in Manitoba has signed onto the school system because they would have to give up control of education funding.

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