Indian Affairs minister Robert Nault and chiefs of eight Fort Frances area First Nations signed an agreement-in-principle here Tuesday that would see local First Nations make their own laws and decisions on education in the near future.
The agreement is the first of its kind in Ontario, but local chiefs are challenging the federal government to ensure the final deal be put in place within the next two years.
Nault called it a historic day at the signing ceremony at the Red Dog Inn.
“It’s the first partnership between the Government of Canada and the First Nations here in the Fort Frances district to allow us to build a future where control over decision-making of the education of the young people of these communities will be up to the communities themselves,” he said.
The eight area First Nations that signed the agreement included Big Island, Rainy River, Naicatchewenin, Stanjikoming, Couchiching, Lac La Croix, Nicickousemenecaning, and Seine River.
Negotiators have spent the last eight years nailing down the agreement-in-principle, which is the first step to allowing First Nations to make their own laws and decisions on primary and secondary education for children living on-reserve.
“This is extremely important for our region,” Nault stressed. “We cannot afford to see young people quitting school at an early age. We have to make sure they are successful if our region, as a whole, is going to prosper.”
There are issues that still have to be resolved in the final agreement, such as the funding formula for education or how the legislation created by First Nations will work with provincial requirements for education.
The chiefs, such as Don Jones of Nicickousemenecaning, hailed the agreement-in-principle as the first step in addressing current concerns in educating aboriginal children.
“We send our children to a school, Mine Centre School, where over 90 percent of the children are being taught there but we only have about 40 percent of the control of the school board,” Chief Jones said.
“That’s the situation I want to change and will change.”
Chief Jones added he hoped this agreement would help them change the fact that only five of 25 teachers at the school are aboriginal.
“I look at this as an opportunity for us to continue our practices and beliefs,” Rainy River First Nations Chief Gary Medicine said at the signing ceremony.
“And it’s not a situation where we have government or we have people who represent authority that are to tell the Nishnawbe people what is right and how they should be taught,” he added.
Warren Hoshizaki, education director with the Rainy River District School Board, also was on hand for Tuesday’s signing. He looked forward to the further co-operation this agreement would foster between area First Nations and local school boards.
“I think it’s long overdue,” he said afterwards.
Hoshizaki said the culture and language programs already being offered by the public school board can only be improved by this partnership.
“This is a real positive thing for the district and our board focus is on student achievement for First Nations kids and that is their goal, so I think we can work together,” he added.
Couchiching Chief Chuck McPherson saw the signing as a recognition of aboriginal rights to govern themselves.
“I’ve always maintained that we, as a Nishnawbe people, have the jurisdiction over education. . . . I view this signing today as Canada’s recognition of that right to control our own life,” he said at the ceremony.
“I recall reading a statement that said . . . ‘If I could control your education, I could control your destiny.’ For far too long, somebody else has been controlling our destiny,” he noted.
Still, Chief McPherson didn’t want anyone to rest on their laurels.
“It took eight years to get to this particular signing of the agreement-in-principle. I challenge this minister to a timeframe of two years to have a final agreement in place,” he urged.
“I also challenge the minister to put in place the resources . . . in terms of finances that would be outside the current levels of department of fiscal authority now,” Chief McPherson continued.
“Without those resources, all of this is nice but it doesn’t go anywhere.”
Nault took up those challenges after the signing ceremony.
“I would like to see this completed at least within the next two years, if not less,” he said. “I think we are at a stage now where we know where we stand at the negotiating table and there’s no reason why we can’t conclude our arrangements.”
He also addressed Chief McPherson’s charge of needing more money for education.
“I recognize we need to have the financial resources necessary to do a good job,” Nault agreed.