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Canada’s Unfulfilled Promises

Exploring Failed Commitments to Indigenous Education and Opportunities for Redress

By: Gemma Porter

Gemma Porter

Historical & Educational Contributor

I am an Assistant Professor in the School of Education at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, New Brunswick. Before making the transition to teacher education in 2021, I worked as a middle years and high school social studies and Indigenous studies public educator. My dissertation research focused on the history of Social Studies curriculum in the province of Saskatchewan.  My current research and practice interests are focused on developing teacher education programming that supports decolonization and education for the common good. This research, and related historical and contemporary policy analysis research, is guided by an interest in examining the ways that socio-political culture as well as educational climate impact educational policy and design.

Canadian schools and provincial ministries of education often highlight their commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion. This contemporary trend in education is one that speaks to the long and painful history of the failures of both Canadian and provincial governments to establish equitable access to quality, culturally responsive education for all students. Nestled within these contemporary discussions about upholding the basic right to education for all children in Canada is Canada’s historical failure to provide Indigenous children with relevant, meaningful, and nurturing educational experiences. This series of articles seeks to provide an overview and examination of Canada’s failed commitments to Indigenous education. By examining four key documents (the Indian Act, a Survey of Contemporary Indians in Canada, Indian Control of Indian Education, and Jordan’s Principle), I aim to shed light on failures and explore opportunities for genuine reconciliation and meaningful change.   

A Note on Terminology

The current landscape of Indigenous education in Canada is complex and varied. The first point of clarification for those unfamiliar with Indigenous peoples and issues in Canada is framing the use of the term “Indigenous.” Terms shift and change over time as our understanding, beliefs, values, and identities shift. While the term Indigenous has become commonplace across government and media publications, the widespread use of the term is relatively new. The creation and adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) is commonly considered a key influence in terms of the language used within Canada in reference to First Peoples. The UNDRIP includes a wide-reaching definition of Indigenous peoples as peoples who are original to the territories where they reside and who also have a common experience with historic and ongoing colonialism.

In Canada, this shift in terminology was reflected in the renaming of the branches of government responsible for liaising with Indigenous communities and governments. In 2015 the name of the federal department responsible for overseeing the relationship with Indigenous peoples and the delivery of Indigenous services changed from Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada to Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC). Following up on one of several recommendations from the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples in 1990, Justin Trudeau’s government has since restructured INAC into two new departments: Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs; and Indigenous Services. The constitutional basis for the framing of who Indigenous peoples are in what is now Canada stems from the Canadian Constitution Act 1982. Section 35 enshrines both Aboriginal and Treaty rights in the constitution. In addition to securing the protection of these rights, S.35 lays the legal foundation for the three officially recognized Indigenous groups in Canada: First Nations, Inuit, and Metis.   

These points of terminology are essential to the discussion of policies that address the educational rights of Indigenous students in Canada. In this article, and the subsequent articles hereafter, the term Indigenous is used in the context of contemporary discussions that do not address specific Indigenous groups or nations. Where specific groups and nations are discussed, traditional names and appropriate group terms are used. First Nations is used when discussing matters pertaining to nations defined as such under the Indian Act, Metis in instances that directly relate to the experiences of communities with historic and continued connections to established Metis communities in Ontario, Manitoba, and Alberta, and Inuit where discussion addresses policies that affect those Indigenous communities.  

A Note on Treaties and Education

Any discussion of Indigenous education must include some context about the connection between education and treaty promises. While the subsequent articles in this series focus on the post-1960 context of Indigenous education in Canada, the historical context of Indigenous education is very much informed by the signing of the Numbered Treaties (1871-1921).

While many Canadians might be familiar with the clauses about land included within treaties with First Nations across what is now Canada, what is less well-known is that these treaties often also included a promise to provide education to the First Nations who signed them. The Numbered Treaties, which cover territory stretching from present-day Ontario across the Prairies, into Alberta, and up into the Northwest Territories, all included provisions related to education. For instance, Treaties 1 through 7 all included similar provisions for the right to education, but it is important to note two key aspects of how the provision for education is described in them. One is that it would be the responsibility of the Crown (meaning the government of Canada) to provide for on-reserve education. That is, the Crown would provide the funds and necessary support required to administer education on reserve. The second crucial point to note is schools would be established and maintained “whenever the Indians of the reserve should desire it” (Government of Canada, 1871). These provisions for education included in treaties are central to understanding Indigenous rights to education in what is now Canada. First, these treaties establish the government’s fiduciary obligation to provide for First Nations education, and second, they secure the rights of First Nations to have control over the implementation of a system of education by the government.

The negotiation of educational commitments reflected the shifting economic landscape across the prairies in the mid to late 19th century. The purposeful decimation of the buffalo and policies of starvation carried out by the MacDonald government throughout the 1870s forced many First Nations into negotiating with the Canadian government for control over their lands, resulting in the treaties. To secure the future of their communities and future generations, some Nations advocated for the inclusion of promises that would contribute to the maintenance of traditional ways of life and access to education for their children. Not long after the signing of the treaties, the Department of Indian Affairs and the Indian Act would provide the context for what that their vision of education would look like: the Indian Residential School system (IRS). The IRS system became the most important part of Canadian government efforts to assimilate Indigenous peoples. Although the IRS was primarily meant for First Nations children, it is well documented that Metis and Inuit children attended the schools in significant numbers. Over the course of their existence across the country between 1831 and 1996, over 150,000 Indigenous children attended residential schools. It is estimated that approximately 20 percent of those children never made it home to their families and communities.

What’s Happening Now? Indigenous Education in a National Context

The recognition and inclusion of Indigenous perspectives in education has become increasingly common. Even before the Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), provincial jurisdictions across the country sought to address the oftentimes harmful representations or even omission of Indigenous peoples within official course programming. The TRC, however, has proclaimed the latest and certainly the most high-profile and sweeping call to address the harmful legacy of colonialism within the education system. 

Justice Murray Sinclair, centre, and Commissioners Chief Wilton Littlechild, left, and Marie Wilson pull back symbolic blanket to unveil the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada on the history of Canada’s residential school system, in Ottawa on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2015. Photo credit: Adrian Wyld. Image courtesy of the National Centre for Truth & Reconciliation.

Historically, academic curricula have been developed in ways that heavily favour a Euro-Western culture through content, perspectives, and approaches to teaching and learning, as well as values about knowledge (Antoine, 2018). But Indigenous education scholar Frank Deer argues (2013) that recognition of Indigenous perspectives and content as an accepted component of public education has become established now because of socio-political events in Canada over the past 40 years. In that period, Indigenous activism and advocacy grew through organizations like the National Indian Brotherhood (now the Assembly of First Nations), movements like the Constitution Express,[i] and publications like the Red Paper.[ii]

These efforts aimed to transition away from residential schooling and highlight growing concerns over the nature and quality of Indigenous education. In their wake, several major investigations[iii] have shed light on the systemic inequities experienced by Indigenous students in the public education system in terms of administrative policies, classroom experience, curriculum, and resources implemented in schools across the country.  

Studies and government reports delving into the inequities evident in the Canadian education system have resulted in all provinces and territories developing strategies and policies aimed at supporting Indigenous students and exposing non-Indigenous students to Indigenous content and perspectives. For instance, in British Columbia the work of the First Nations Steering Committee resulted in the creation of the First Principles of Learning. This document, as articulated by Indigenous scholars, Elders, and knowledge keepers, details a set of learning principles specific to First Peoples, intended to guide curriculum and teaching. The Office of First Nations Education in New Brunswick recently published a Wabanaki Framework document to support the integration of Wabanaki content and perspectives into public education in the province. The document details key outcomes at various grade levels and also includes a set of principles specific to Wabanaki worldviews.  

Despite these initiatives, and a growing awareness of the systemic nature of the obstacles that Indigenous students experience, many provinces continue to report alarmingly low graduation rates for Indigenous students in the public school system. In Saskatchewan, rates vary according to the city and school district, but Indigenous students continue to graduate at rates much lower than their non-Indigenous counterparts. For instance, while rates of graduation for Indigenous students have steadily increased over the last few years in Regina (Saskatchewan’s largest city), the 2021-2022 4-year graduation rate for Indigenous students was 44 percent and the 5-year rate was 59 percent. Compare this to a 4-year graduation rate of 89 percent for non-Indigenous students.

The development of studies that examine the needs of Indigenous students by directly involving students in the process have yielded fruitful solutions and approaches for supporting students in the education system. Time and again, researchers note the importance of relationships, belonging, and relevancy.[iv]  The most successful programs and initiatives that seek to address the disparities that exists between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students in the education system draw on this research and aim to disrupt and improve educational programming in systemic ways. Examples include: creating Indigenous student learning cohorts within a larger school setting; locally developed course options for students that provide access to traditional knowledge and ways of being; the development of Indigenous-staffed offices within provincial centres of education; Indigenous consultation in curricular development and renewals; and self-government agreements that offer a mechanism for Indigenous control of Indigenous education. All of these, and more, offer promise for developing equitable access and supports for Indigenous learners across Canada.

Conclusion

The history of failed commitments to Indigenous students serves as a painful reminder of the ongoing and long-standing injustices Indigenous students continue to face and that governments and individuals in the territory of what is now Canada need to address. An examination of these critical historical developments offers the potential to explore avenues of change that support the realization of genuine commitments to education for Indigenous students.

Additional Resources

Antoine, A., et. al., Pulling Together: A guide for Curriculum Developers, (2018).

Deer, F., “Integrating Aboriginal Perspectives in Education: Perceptions of Pre-Service Teachers,” Canadian Journal of Education/Revue Canadienne De l’éducation, 36(2) (2013), pg. 175–211.

Barkaskas, P.M. & Gladwin, D., “Pedagogical Talking Circles: Decolonizing Education through Relational Indigenous Frameworks,” Journal of Teaching and Learning, 15(1) (2021), pg. 20, 38.

MacIver, Marion, “Aboriginal students’ perspectives on the factors influencing high school completion,” Multicultural Perspectives (2012), pg. 156-162.

Steeves, L. et. al., “Seeking their voices: Improving Indigenous student learning outcomes,” Saskatchewan Instructional Development and Research Unit – University of Regina (2014).

Stelmach, Kovach, M., & Steeves, L., “Casting a new light on a long shadow: Saskatchewan aboriginal high school students talk about what helps and hinders their learning,” Alberta Journal of Educational Research, 63(1) (2017), pg. 1–20.

Toulouse, P.R. (2016). “What matters in Indigenous education: Implementing a vision committed to holism, diversity and engagement,” Measuring What Matters; A People for Education Project.


[i] Organized by Indigenous activist George Manuel, the Constitution Express was an activist movement in 1980-81 that protested the omission of Aboriginal rights from the proposed patriation of the constitution. Led by Manuel, activists chartered two trains to travel from Vancouver all the way to Ottawa to publicize their concerns.

[ii] The Red Paper is an alternative name often used to refer to a report written by Harold Cardinal in response to the Canadian government’s White Paper. The White Paper, formally known as the “Statement of the Government of Canada on Indian Policy, 1969”, sought to eliminate and dissolve Indigenous rights and the then Department of Indian Affairs – all in the name of equality. Led by activist Cardinal, the Indian Association of Alberta compiled their response, which included some immediate demands, and presented them to the government. This, along with additional widespread backlash against the White Paper, resulted in the abandonment of the proposed act.

[iii] See for instance McIver (2012); Steeves et. al. (2014); Barkaskas & Gladwin (2021)

[iv] See for instance Toulouse (2016). Diversity and differentiated learning are essential for Indigenous students, and Indigenous ways of knowing and learning are central to that diversity. The diversity of Indigenous peoples in Canada means that there really is no one size fits all model in terms of supporting students and developing relevant and meaningful programming. There are, however, some common pedagogical connections: connections to culture, concrete to abstract and abstract to concrete examples, mini lessons with hands-on activities, connections to real life experiences, group talk, humour, and experiential and land based activities. Also key is beginning with where your school is located and making community connections.