Prior to the Indian Act of 1876, Indigenous peoples of North America exercised full control over all aspects of life including education. Autonomous, self-governing nations exercised control over complex, holistic, and pedagogically sound systems of enculturation, in which networks of extended community, family members, and in particular Elders were (and still are) the teachers. Following the Indian Act, federal government authorities and the churches controlled First Nations’ education. This involved extensive efforts to colonize First Nations peoples through social, political, economic, and educational systems designed to isolate/assimilate First Nations peoples, the effects of which still resonate.

The implementation of the Indian Act led to the establishment of church-operated residential and industrial schools. Residential Schools began in 1849 and were attended by children between the ages of 6 and 14; industrial schools were attended by older students, who were trained in trades. Federal legislation obligated First Nations parents to turn their children over to residential school authorities. By 1920 it was evident to some missionaries and civil servants that the assimilation and isolation strategies of residential and industrial schools were ineffective. However, the 1927 Indian Act allowed the government to exert yet stronger control over the lives of First Nations children attending residential schools. Lack of funding had previously forced the closure of industrial schools in 1920, but residential schools remained in operation until the 1970s.

The provincial and residential school systems functioned simultaneously between 1849 and 1970. The federal government implemented a second phase of education for First Nations students in the 1950s and into the1960s, with on-reserve day schools. The federal government’s 1969 White Paper caused concern in First Nations communities because its intent was to abolish the special legal status of Indians already entrenched by treaties; within a year, First Nations peoples rallied and responded with the Red Paper. Then, in 1972, the National Indian Brotherhood, predecessor to the Assembly of First Nations, released a policy statement, Indian Control of Indian Education, advocating control of education by and for First Nations peoples.

In the late 1960s and into the 1970s, the federal government initiated another strategy, known as the integration period, to educate First Nations children and youth. First Nations students living on reserves began attending provincial schools that were ill-prepared for this influx of new students. The integration period stymied learners, teachers, and communities as they wrestled to find mutually beneficial ways of working together. Up to this time, the relationship between First Nations people and the federal government had been strained because of contradictory positions on education. Furthermore, the BNA Act of 1867 delegates jurisdiction for education to the provinces, while at the same time the Numbered Treaties protect rights to education for First Nations people. This jurisdictional conundrum led to First Nations children and youth “falling through the cracks” of both education systems.

While jurisdictional dilemmas led to inadequate education for First Nations children and youth, the education of Métis peoples was a random proposition. In some cases, Métis children were educated through the options provided for First Nations children, while others attended provincial schools. Education for both First Nations and Métis students in provincial schools began to stabilize in the 1980s. The provincial government published the Indian and Métis Education Policy from Kindergarten to Grade 12, which advocates incorporating Indian and Métis content and perspectives across curricula. This positive shift in policy direction led the way to further systemic improvements. Additionally, in response to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal People’s recommendations, Saskatchewan Learning is one of twelve departments involved in the Métis and Off-Reserve Strategy initiated in 2001. As well, in 2003 Saskatchewan Learning published Building Partnerships: First Nations and Métis Peoples and the Provincial Education System—Policy Framework, which encourages strong partnerships among First Nations and Métis peoples and the provincial education system.

In this collaborative spirit, Saskatchewan Learning refocuses its resources on working in partnership with First Nations and Métis peoples to create an education system that is not only inclusive, but also governed in innovative ways for the benefit of all Saskatchewan children and youth. In light of provincial policy enactment and supportive initiatives, Saskatchewan Learning together with First Nations and Métis peoples envisions a “shared and harmonious future.”

Sandra Bellegarde, Trish LaFontaine

Further Reading

Royal Commission on Aboriginal People, Minister of Supply and Services Canada. 1996. Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, Volume 1: Looking Forward, Looking Back. Ottawa; Saskatchewan Learning. 2003. Building Partnerships: First Nations and Métis Peoples and the Provincial Education System. Regina.