“Ted, the government has never done one goddamn thing for First Nations people that was any good.” Ted Cadwallader, Provincial Director of Aboriginal Education in British Columbia, recalled what his First Nations father used to say to him. “He was pretty happy that I was working in government,” Cadwallader said sarcastically.
Until the late 20th century, Canada ran a devastating residential school assimilation policy. Labelled “cultural genocide”, it forcibly separated 150,000 Indigenous children from their communities and sent them to schools which were rife with abuse. Even since the policy ended, support for Aboriginal children has been underfunded and inadequate, especially in early childhood.
Now Canada’s federal government, which in 2016 adopted the UN’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), is looking to make amends. It is providing CAD$130 million ($102 million) per year for the next decade to Indigenous early childhood programs. Through a national consultation, Indigenous communities themselves have developed a new policy framework with the government. Ahead of its publication in summer 2018, Apolitical spoke to the people who helped to create it to find out what we can expect.
A disconnected bureaucracy
Aboriginal communities in Canada, which includes the First Nations, Inuit and Métis people, are in dire need of resources. This is especially true for those living on reserves — which includes just under half the 745,000-strong First Nations population with legal “Indian status”. First Nations kids on reserves receive around 30% less in educational funding, and up to 38% less in child welfare.
However, there is more to the issue than cash. Many communities feel that policies have been forced upon them without understanding their culture.
For example, Cadwallader points out, there has been a disconnect in language education. Models used to teach traditional European languages are considered completely inappropriate for Indigenous languages, which include complex words that are not translatable into English. Yet when creating an Indigenous language policy for its public schools, Cadwallader said, British Columbia simply transplanted a policy developed for teaching French.
But to create its new Indigenous Early Learning and Child Care Framework, the Canadian Government spoke to over 3,000 people with more than 100 meetings, online surveys and other engagement activities, said Josh Bueckert, a spokesperson for Employment and Social Development Canada. First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities created their own policy frameworks, which have been joined together to create the federal framework which is being published in 2018.
At its core is the “notion that children sit within the context of family and community”, said Margo Greenwood, a member of the working group which created the National First Nations Early Learning and Child Care (ELCC) framework, the First Nations’ own policy document. This means putting Indigenous cultures at the heart of the early learning curriculum to ensure their “survival”, and recognising the role of family members as a young child’s main teachers, as opposed to formal education.
The framework deals in top-level principles, but one can see how it would translate into policies, which will be mapped out by local communities later in 2018.
For example, on Seabird Island reserve in south western Canada, a formal year of “K4” kindergarten has been introduced for four-year-olds. But it won’t be fully effective on its own, argues Tyrone McNeil, President of the First Nations Education Steering Committee. He believes they need wraparound support for parents and grandparents, especially due to the trauma which many experienced at residential school.
Secondly, the framework calls for systemic change for the first time, said Greenwood. With early education and childcare programs created in the 1990s, “there was an expectation to adhere to provincial laws,” she explained. Under the new framework, Indigenous communities can take more control over legislation, governance and accountability, although they will need the support to build these capacities at community-level.
In British Columbia in the West of Canada, for example, the policy structure is “a bit of a zoo”, said McNeil, with various overlapping programs that struggle to cooperate. This “scattering of programs” includes Aboriginal Head Start on Reserve (AHSOR) which provides early learning opportunities to prepare kids for school, and the First Nations and Inuit Child Care Initiative (FNICCI) which improves childcare provision.
Each involves various federal and provincial government departments — AHSOR comes under the federal Health department and FNICCI under Employment and Social Development — but there’s very little contact between the programs.
Now, the First Nations national framework calls specifically for “inter-sectoral agreements” to enable national, regional and local coordination, but it’s up to communities exactly how this should happen in practice.
Meanwhile, data is essential in monitoring the impact of these programs and informing policy, but so far its use among Indigenous communities in Canada has been sporadic. “For the most part, boards of education, superintendents, and secretaries of the treasury have no idea how well our kids are doing until we show them the data,” said McNeil. “Every time they say: ‘holy crap, that’s not acceptable – let’s do something’.”
Indigenous people tend to be reluctant to use pre-existing data tools: in British Columbia, for example, only around 30% of First Nations preschools on reserves have participated in the Early Development Instrument (EDI), a child development tool used widely in the province. Teachers fill out a survey measuring each child’s readiness for school, including criteria like physical wellbeing and communication skills, to identify which communities need extra support.
The EDI is measured by preschool teachers, and Indigenous people are concerned that some may mistake certain behaviours and misjudge Aboriginal children because they aren’t used to them, said Cadwallader. “Overall, our kids will not fare well on measures developed outside Indigenous communities, because they do not reflect our realities,” said Greenwood. Different cultures measure “success” for young kids in different ways, she said.
As a result, the First Nations framework recommends the development of “community-based research capacities” to measure early childhood development according to their cultural values.
The details for all these changes are yet to be ironed out, but the new federal policy framework finally hands Indigenous communities substantial control in the lives of their young children. Following a long and ugly history of assimilation and chronic underfunding, this could prove to be an important first step in reconciliation between Canada and its Indigenous peoples.
(Picture credit: Flickr/Province of British Columbia)