An “historic day” was marked at Maskwacis when an agreement was signed Friday that begins to redress some of the wrongs imposed by Indian Residential Schools.
The chiefs of all four Maskwacis Cree First Nations gathered to sign a landmark document with the Government of Canada that officially gives local control of education back to the indigenous bands.
Ermineskin Chief Craig Makinaw, Louis Bull Chief Irvin Bull, Montana Chief Leonard Standingontheroad, and Samson Chief Vernon Saddleback, along with Canada’s Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott, ratified agreement that amalgamates four separate Maskwacis Education systems into one overall system.
Instead of each band running its own schools, the Maskwacis Education Schools Commission Resource and Development Agreement creates one school division for the entire community.
While the curriculum will still be provided in the short-term through a partnership with Alberta Education, and enriched with Cree language classes and other cultural programs, the longer-term goal is to adapt a curriculum based on Cree values, principles and beliefs.
”Land-based learning will be one of the fundamental approaches,” said the new school district’s superintendent, Brian Wildcat, who envisions having education that goes well beyond the classroom, using nature and the wilderness to inform students in an “indigenized” curriculum.
But that will be a decade or more down the road, Wildcat estimated. For now, the new Maskwacis Education Commission will stick to the present curriculum and run all the schools in Maskwacis.
Wildcat said the advantage of amalgamation is more equitable funding and education for all students. “The main reason is to improve student achievement and to provide better services for students in schools.”
He noted some Maskwacis schools had previously been funded better than others, with more programs and resources. “The funding was driven by student population,” he added, so larger bands, such as Samson, had better funded schools than smaller bands, such as Louis Bull.
The new district will have 2,300 students in 11 schools, with pure-kindergarten enrichment classes to Grade 12. (There are two high schools).
Wildcat is pleased that a better funding agreement was worked out with the federal government for the new Maskwacis Education Commission. Per-student funding is now close to what is received by many Alberta school jurisdictions.
He looks forward to when more classes will be taught in Cree and the curriculum will be set by the commission. The goal is to make school more relevant to Maskwacis students and keep them in school longer. “If we provide proper programming and a sense of belonging” less students will drop out and more will strive to achieve higher marks. ”We already pit a lot of effort in all our schools to increase our language and culture.”
One example is the buffalo harvest, in which a buffalo is culled from a ranch herd, and students take part in the whole process of turning the meat into food, including ceremonies involving the butchering, and native teachings about what happens after the hunt.
“Today is very, very important fom the point-of-view of reconciliation. The Truth (and Reconciliation) Commission studied the residential school history in Canada, and just a couple of hundred yards from here was the largest residential school in Canada…. for us to reach today, where we can now change (and teach) our language, culture and traditions in our schools again, it’s a starting point, not only of reconciliation, but a starting point for our healing.”
— Treaty 6 Grand Chief Wilton Littlechild
“This is all in the spirit of self-determination. We’ve said, as a government, that we recognize and respect the right of self-determination as one of the most essential, inherent rights. There’s a treaty right to education that the government has the obligation to uphold… and that really means the government should not be the one running schools… (they need to be) managed by First Nations for First Nations, designed specifically for local needs and recognizing there’s a distinctiveness to the culture here…and that will make it a rich educational experience.”
— Canada’s Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott
“Today’s a landmark event for the community. This agreement we’ve signed with the federal government is a funding and resource agreement (that) guarantees money and it allows us to do some work that we’ve wanted to do for years on curriculum development, academic (and) program improvements, providing more resources and supports to our schools. The residential school system was a dark period in Canadian history. Many of the people who were here today, myself included, were part of the system” — and moving, from that time to this, was a long journey.
— Brian Wildcat, superintendent of the Maskwacis Education Commission.