Before contact with Europeans, Aboriginal peoples educated their youth through traditional means — demonstration, group socialization, participation in cultural and spiritual rituals, skill development and oral teachings. The introduction of European classroom-style education as part of a larger goal of assimilation disrupted traditional methods and resulted in cultural trauma and dislocation. Reformers of Aboriginal education policies are attempting to reintegrate traditional Aboriginal teachings and provide more cultural and language-based support to enhance and improve the outcomes of Aboriginal children in the education system.

Introduction: Traditional Education

Traditional education among most First Nations and Inuit peoples was accomplished using several techniques, including observation and practice, family and group socialization, oral teachings, and participation in community ceremonies and institutions. Such societies had special obligations and responsibilities such as Fire Keepers, and passing on histories and religious traditions. The more socially and economically stratified Northwest coastal cultures, such as the Haida and Nuu-chah-nulth, included specialized artisanal and ceremonial roles whose continuation depended on apprentices to learn the appropriate skills and knowledge. Less stratified Aboriginal peoples also relied on the training of apprentices to acquire the knowledge for medicines, ceremonies, and oral histories.

The adults responsible for educating youth included parents, grandparents, members of the extended family and community elders. Where community organization and size warranted it, youth were also educated by members of the group’s ceremonial organizations and societies. With these methods, children learned the values, beliefs, skills and knowledge considered necessary for adult life. These techniques continue today, but their importance to many Aboriginal peoples has been significantly reduced through 350 years of a formal European classroom style of education.

The imposition of European-style education by colonial governments is reflective of entrenched policies of assimilation and cultural destruction. By using church-led education initiatives, colonial governments sought to reduce Aboriginal people’s dependence on subsistence hunting and gathering. With the gradual decline in the fur trade, and the need for increased immigration for western settlement, colonial and national policies sought to eliminate the constant movement of families and communities that the traditional hunting and gathering ways of life demanded. By establishing more or less permanent communities (reserves) and implementing church-run schools within them, colonial and federal governments began the long process of assimilating Aboriginal peoples.

Increased immigration, together with the colonial and federal policies to obtain land by surrenders or treaties, contributed to many Aboriginal leaders reluctantly accepting that their traditional ways of life were no longer sustainable. Furthermore, many leaders perceived the new classroom-style education as a way to equip their youth with the means to survive within new and different economies.

Development of European-style Education

In the early 1600s, the formal European-style education of Aboriginal children began in New France. Schools were operated by Catholic missionaries from French religious orders such as the Récollets, Jesuits and Ursulines. These schools established a pattern of church involvement in Aboriginal education that dominated until after the Second World War. The principal goals of these mission schools were to "civilize" and Christianize Aboriginal peoples, whose traditional ways of life were seen as inferior or heathen.

In the late 1700s and early 1800s, Protestant churches also became active in the education of Aboriginal children in what is now Canada. From 1763 to 1830, colonial governments dealt with "Indian Affairs" through the military, and the provision for formal education for Aboriginal youth was minimal. After 1830, when administration was transferred to the secretary of state for the colonies, some money was diverted to education by means of donations to church organizations. This funding allowed the building of rudimentary schools, also known as mission schools, in pre-reserve Aboriginal settlements. Missionaries provided instruction that was often a combination of Christian doctrine and basic literacy and numeracy.

Beginning in the 1830s, the settler churches, mainly the Roman Catholic and Anglican denominations, in cooperation with the colonial governments and later the federal government, began to establish residential schools. By 1900, there were 64 residential schools in Canada staffed by missionary teachers who gave vocational, manual and religious instruction. These schools were seen by colonial, and later federal, authorities as the ideal system for educating Aboriginal youth because they removed children from the influences of traditional family and culture. The assimilative practices of the schools reinforced the general government policy to assimilate Aboriginal peoples into colonial society.

Whenever authorities tasked with the removal of children arrived in Aboriginal communities, some parents hid their children to prevent them from being taken away to residential schools. The regime was uniformly harsh and often cruel. Students were physically punished for any kind of disobedience, and most schools forbade them to use Aboriginal languages and actively made them feel ashamed of their Aboriginal identities. Evidence that many children suffered sexual abuse in residential schools has also been substantiated. Furthermore, there is evidence that numerous children either died at residential school or died at home from illnesses contracted during their time at a residential school.

In the 1970s, the government began to close residential schools across Canada. The Gordon Residential School in Saskatchewan closed in 1996, making it the last residential school to shut its doors. On 1 June 2008, the federal government established a five-year Truth and Reconciliation Commission to enable residential school survivors to share their stories in a safe environment and to educate Canadians about residential schools and their impact on Aboriginal peoples.

Different Status, Different Stream

After 1867, education for Aboriginal youth fell into two categories: education for status Indians became a federal responsibility under the Constitution and various treaties, while education for non-status Indian, Inuit and Métis youth became a provincial or territorial responsibility. By 1900, there were 226 federally funded day schools on reserves. The majority of teachers were missionaries and the curriculum continued to feature a large proportion of religious instruction as introduced by the earlier mission schools. By the 1930s, the curriculum began to be more closely patterned on that of the non-Aboriginal provincial schools.

By 1940, statistics revealed that few status Indian children were benefiting from their formal education experiences. Many children were repeating three or four grades in elementary school, and only a small percentage were graduating and going on to high school. Following a major review of Aboriginal education in the late 1940s, the federal government, in cooperation with provincial education authorities, established a policy of education integration and federal funds were provided to enable students to attend provincial elementary and high schools. Provincially-certified teachers replaced non-certified teachers (mostly missionaries) in reserve schools, and all reserve schools adhered to the curriculum for the province in which they were located. The expectation was that by removing students from the poorly staffed, inadequately equipped, heavily church-oriented day schools, assimilation would be accelerated and the education outcomes of students would improve. Enrolments in provincial schools rose rapidly and by 1960, there were about 10,000 Aboriginal students attending off-reserve provincial schools.

Numerous problems became evident in the program, which led parents and community leaders to re-evaluate its usefulness. Although the qualifications of provincial teachers were superior to the pre-1950s missionary instructors, they lacked specialized training to teach Aboriginal students effectively. Aboriginal parents criticized the removal of children to boarding homes — in many cases, several hundred kilometres away — as well as the daily commuting by bus to attend provincial schools. Most Aboriginal students were not achieving success: in 1967, there were only 200 Aboriginal students enrolled in Canadian universities out of a total Aboriginal student population of about 60,000.

Unlike First Nations youth, Métis and non-status Indian youth were required to attend regular provincial and territorial schools as soon as the schools became established. The Indian Act prevented Métis and non-status Indian students from attending schools on reserve. There is little evidence to indicate whether their education outcomes were significantly better than those of status Indian youth.

Toward a Better Policy

In 1972, the National Indian Brotherhood (now known as the Assembly of First Nations) produced a policy on Aboriginal education called "Indian Control of Indian Education." The policy was subsequently adopted by the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development (now Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada) as an unofficial education policy. It identified the importance of local community control to improve education, the need for more Aboriginal teachers, the development of relevant curricula and teaching resources in Aboriginal schools, and the importance of language instruction and Aboriginal values in Aboriginal education.

Since the presentation of the policy, several changes have occurred. In July 2000, 446 of 455 on-reserve schools were under First Nations management, while the remaining nine were under federal government management. Reserve schools began to offer Aboriginal-language classes, ensuring that Aboriginal children attending these schools received some form of Aboriginal-language instruction. Teacher education programs to increase the number of Aboriginal teachers have been established in several universities in Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. In 1972, the University of Saskatchewan’s Indian Teacher Education Program (ITEP) — the first program of its kind — began admitting Aboriginal students.

As a result of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement in 1976, the Cree School Board was created. It is the largest First Nations-controlled school board in Canada. Despite the fact that the education of status Indians on reserves is under federal jurisdiction (Section 91 of the Constitution Act), the Cree School Board operates under Québec education jurisdiction (Section 93 of the Constitution Act). The board is funded jointly by Québec and Ottawa. In 1969, Trent University in Peterborough became the first Canadian university to establish a Native Studies program. A majority of colleges and universities currently offer similar programs or departments across Canada. In 1973, the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College (SIFC), part of the University of Regina, became the first Aboriginal-controlled degree-granting post-secondary education institution in Canada. In 2003, SIFC became a stand-alone chartered university — the First Nations University of Canada. There are several First Nations community colleges throughout Canada, which provide an array of post-secondary education programs for Aboriginal students, occasionally in conjunction with provincially chartered universities or community colleges.

Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) provides some funding for some Aboriginal students (status Indians and some Inuit) for post-secondary education through the Post-Secondary Student Support Program (PSSSP). Between 1997 and 2009, the number of students funded through the program declined from 22,938 to 18,729, but graduates from the program increased from 3,644 in 1997 to 3,803 in 2008. In studies compiled by the Assembly of First Nations, lack of adequate funding has been demonstrated as a serious impediment to access to the program. The compiled report argues that the program’s capped budget leaves behind thousands of students who are prepared but have not been able to enroll in the PSSSP.

Inuit Education

Similar to many Indigenous peoples around the world, the Inuit educated their children principally for survival and for the acquisition of social and spiritual values. Before the 1950s, Inuit youth received training on the land from senior members of their extended families. Females learned domestic skills at the feet of the senior women in their extended families. Domestic skills included the preparation of skins and pelts for making clothes, cutting and sewing, cooking, food preparation and child-rearing.

Some Inuit children were educated in mission schools in Labrador as early as the 1790s. But formal European-style education for Inuit youth only began on a national scale in the 1950s with the construction of elementary and residential schools throughout major settlements in the Arctic, including Baffin Island. The decrease in the prevalence of residential schools in the Arctic paralleled the decrease in residential schools for Aboriginal children as a whole. This decrease led to a school-construction program by the federal government in most Inuit villages and hamlets by 1970. Inuit education programs, unlike those in other schools for Aboriginal people, identify the Inuit language Inuktitut as the language of instruction for part or all of the primary grades. In spite of this pedagogical innovation, education for Inuit youth has been impeded by problems similar to those encountered by other Aboriginal students.

The Kativik School Board was created by the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement to provide elementary and secondary education within an Inuit environment for children in 14 schools in Nunavik in northern Québec. The board also provides adult education and post-secondary education programs. The creation of Nunavut in 1999 has led to an Inuit-controlled government that is working to achieve an education system that is more Inuit-based and Inuit-defined than the previous territorially defined education system and programs.

Statistics are not available for Métis and non-status Indian students, but studies generally indicate that, owing to poor socioeconomic conditions and the absence of any specific provincial or federal responsibility for their education, they suffer consequences similar to other Aboriginal peoples in their attempt to receive a formal education.

Moving Forward

Efforts of Aboriginal leaders and educators to acquire the authority for the education of their children have contributed to federal and provincial legislation that formalizes the local jurisdiction of education for First Nations communities. The Nisga'a Final Agreement which came into force in 2000 in BC, the Mi'kmaq Education Act in Nova Scotia in 1997–98, and the joint federal-provincial First Nations Education Act and First Nations Jurisdiction over Education in BC Act in 2007 enabled communities that are signatories to make education laws for their schools within defined limits. In 2014, the federal government introduced Bill C-33, the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act. The Assembly of First Nations rejected it, claiming the government developed the bill without adequate consultation. Many critics of the Act argued that it failed to reduce government involvement in First Nations education.

Improving the educational outcomes of Aboriginal youth in Canada has been an ongoing challenge for more than a century. It is evident that major reforms will be required before substantive positive changes in the Aboriginal graduation rates and outcomes at the secondary and post-secondary education levels will emerge. Some argue that federal and provincial authorities must seek advice and direction from Aboriginal leaders and parents on key questions on the purpose and value of a formal education for Aboriginal children. Failure to adequately do so will extend the assumption that provincial education regimes and policies are not only appropriate for the education of Aboriginal children, but are the primary methods by which these children should be educated.

For Aboriginal students to benefit from their formal education, several reforms are necessary. The majority of First Nation schools operate with extremely limited support in either second-level or third-level education services. Ordinary provincial and territorial schools enjoy a full range of these education services in pedagogy, administration, supervision and research provided by both school board and ministries or departments of education. Aboriginal pedagogies will require further research to be applied in the curriculum and Aboriginal school policies. A change in the focus of teaching resources and school curricula may incorporate and reinforce the culture and values that Aboriginal children acquire within the family. Provincial teacher training programs are beginning to incorporate cultural dynamics in Aboriginal classrooms as a key element in the preparation of teachers for Aboriginal schools. Education policies at the local and urban levels are also expanding opportunities in technical and vocational programs. Greater consideration is being given to instructing children in primary grades in the language of the home and community, particularly in areas where the Aboriginal language is in danger of becoming extinct.

As the proportion of Aboriginal youth in provincial and territorial schools increase, due in part to migration to urban communities, provincial and territorial education authorities will be required to develop specific policies and programs to insure that Aboriginal youth achieve improved education outcomes. Efforts to create urban Aboriginal high schools in Edmonton, Winnipeg and Saskatoon have contributed to stronger student retention rates as a result of their emphasis on culture, language and student remediation.

It is clear from the past that efforts to alienate Aboriginal peoples from their culture have not promoted learning in the formal education process. Similarly, the unilateral imposition of provincial education regimes and policies in all Aboriginal schools continues to be a major obstacle impeding the successful education of Aboriginal children.