Speech Article from  Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada

Address by Carolyn Bennett, Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs: A Genuine Partnership in First Nations Education at the National First Nation Directors of Education Forum

February 23, 2016
Delta Ottawa City Centre, ON

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Thank you, Merci, Miigwetch, Qujanamiik, Marsee, Mahsi Cho.

It's a pleasure to be with you on traditional Algonquin territory, for the first national Directors of Education Forum.

My warmest thanks to Elder Whiteduck and Chief Kirby Whiteduck for welcoming us to their traditional territory, and to National Chief Perry Bellegarde and Chief Bobby Cameron for their leadership in bringing all of us together today.

I regret not being able to spend more time with you today; but I think you'd rather have me at the cabinet table where I can help bring real change for your communities. 

Before I begin, would like to take a moment to acknowledge the many educators in the audience today.

Thank you for your dedication and tireless efforts to create learning environments that enable your students to thrive and reach their full potential.

The pride you have in your schools and the success of your students is palpable.

Education really is the foundation for progress, and a key element in the formula for change.

It's inspiring and exciting to see the extent to which, as experts, directors, principals and teachers, you are driving the momentum for fundamental change, with such passion and dedication.

I've witnessed that passion first hand during the many opportunities I have had to visit with you in your schools.

By talking with principals, teachers and students, I have come to understand not just the challenges you face, but also the aspirations you hold.

I look forward to the day when I can visit again and celebrate your successes with you.

You are really at the core of what Chief Sitting Bull describes as the "best of both worlds" – a strong cultural identity, rooted in tradition and language, and also the skills to compete in the modern world.

This foundation of a secure personal and cultural identity, partnered with best educational practices is absolutely essential to closing the gaps in educational outcomes.

Today, in my new role as Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, you have my firm commitment to partnering with you in a renewed spirit, so you can enable a foundation of that cultural identity and strong pedagogical practices that fit the unique needs of your schools.

I truly believe that it is that strong cultural identity, coupled with teaching excellence, that will help close the gaps in educational outcomes.

That's what I'd like to talk about today.

Creating a Secure Personal & Cultural Identity

We all know that every student comes to school with their own set of traits and characteristics.

It's what makes each one unique, and it's what helps drive their achievement.

The need to belong, to have a sense of one's self in relation to others, is crucial in a learning environment.

Creating that cultural identity, nurturing it and celebrating it, is one of the most important pieces to achieving self-esteem, resilience, and a sense of control over one's life.

Schools should be a safe place, which nourishes each child's health, physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. 

Over my two years as Minister of State of Public Health, staff and I developed the Healthy Canadians Tree, and although the tree analogy was developed in a public health context, it has a direct application to education outcomes as well.

It's a visual way of demonstrating the importance of understanding what Sir Michael Marmot calls the "causes" and the "causes of the causes."

These 'causes of the causes' – the social determinants – are the roots of the tree – they support absolutely everything else.

Supportive communities.

Freedom from violence, abuse and neglect.

Caring relationships.

Access to health care, recreation and shelter.

And education, literacy, music and art.

The direct causes are the choices people made, the modifiable risks, represented by the tree trunk, and then the outcomes were in the healthy branches.

Dr. Bill Mussell, from the Native Mental Health Association, helped me develop the tree as well.

He told me my tree needed "ground" – that the solid life choices that grow the tree can only come from a grounded, secure personal and cultural identity.

Self-esteem, a sense of control over one's life and a sense of belonging to a culture all provide resilience.

Resilience results in good health, education, and positive economic outcomes.

We know the challenges that can make these choices difficult, such as poverty, domestic violence, the environment, and poor housing.

However even in the face of challenges felt by children, it only takes one teacher, one hockey coach, one principal who believes in them, to enable the child to start making health choices and reap the rewards of health, education and prosperity.  

It's clear that you take this to heart.

When you read the AFN's statement, that if children's education "reflects First Nations beliefs and values, [it will] restore our children to their rightful place and, in doing so, restore our communities to a place of power and self-sufficiency."

Therefore, I'm thrilled to see so many positive developments in fostering, securing and promoting cultural identity, in communities across the country.

In particular, immersion schools teaching First Nations languages.

Here in Ontario many programs are teaching Mohawk aim to not only teach the language, but to create speakers.

Walking with our Sisters, for example.

When I was in La Loche, I learned that, despite the challenges faced by the northern community, the Clearwater River Dene have taken the initiative to start a K-12 Dene immersion school.

I was also thrilled to learn that the first-ever Mi'kmaq immersion school opened its doors in Eskasoni in the fall, a standalone school staffed by fluent Mi'kmaq speakers.

It's also incredible to see the extent to which technology can help transform the classroom.

I'm delighted to see the First Nations language apps, like those developed by the First People's Cultural Council, bridging the old and new worlds.

During at breakout session at the TRC in Toronto with Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux and the Roots Exchange, I was so happy to see two young students were showing off their First Nation language apps – one in Cree and one in Ojibwe.   

Technology is enabling us to create digital records and preserve the voices, languages and dialects so they are not lost to history.

Technology is not just making language more accessible, it's promoting it, reviving it and celebrating it.

Many of you have worked so hard for these successes.

And we will work with you to advance and strengthen the revitalization of First Nation languages.

We're also are looking forward to supporting programs that develop culturally-relevant curricula and evidence-based activities that work for your students. 

The goal, of course, is to help revive traditional cultural skills, languages and heritage, and enhance and promote understanding of them.

I will be working closely with the Minister of Heritage on this, who as you know has being mandated to, "work in collaboration with the Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs to provide new funding to promote, preserve and enhance Indigenous languages and cultures."

I want you to know that we get it – we share your belief that language and culture is going to be hugely important for a student to be proud young Indigenous woman or man, and is essential to their success. 

We want to hear from you about how the government can help.

It's my job to make sure the government isn't in your way, but rather supporting and facilitating your ability to do more as educators.

Of course we will work together on this.

Quality Teaching

On top of the foundation of cultural identity, you know better than I do that we also need excellent teaching for learning success.

Teachers empower students by spending more time mentoring them and fostering their identity, rather than 'managing' them.

We need to ensure the supports are there for your teachers to help you do that – to help you teach in the most effective way and perhaps inspire your students to become teachers themselves.

It was Andy Scott who taught me before he passed away, about the specific importance of teachers at the grade 3 and 4 levels.

That's when the transition begins, from "learning to read" into "reading to learn," and when expectations for students begin to increase based on their foundational ability to read.

It's also a time when teachers figure prominently in the student's ability to bridge that gap, to make that critical transition.

As former Prime Minister Paul Martin has said, many students who drop out in Grade 10 don't really drop out in Grade 10, they gave up in Grade 4 or 5 or 6 and spent the next few years unable to admit that they couldn't read.

Educators have long being speaking about the importance of family literacy and intergenerational storytelling.

If parents are able to read with the children, they will be able support their learning and understand the special needs of their child. 


And I share your understanding that Indigenous pedagogy – or "Indigigogy", my new favourite word coined I believe by Grand Chief Gordon Peters – lets teachers apply culture to the equation.

It's so important that there is a cultural application to pedagogy.

First Nations ways of knowing, language and culture should not be "extra" or optional – they are inherent to the success of Indigenous learners.

The expression of intellect and emotions and spirit through art, music, culture and sports should not be afterthoughts.

That's why I've been so inspired by the teachings of First Peoples.

Learning by observation and by doing.

Learning through authentic experiences and individualized instruction.

Learning through enjoyment, not through memorizing textbooks.

On-the-land programming, that helps children and youth connect to culture and values, rooted in First Nations' deep appreciation and respect for the land.

I used to say that everything I needed to know, I learned at summer camp – and I'm reminded there weren't any blackboards there.

We also learned a about physics when we couldn't get our canoe out in a wind, which was easier to see than arrows on the blackboard and explaining where the wind is coming from.

Mother Nature is an excellent teacher.

And some of the best teachers I knew understood that you "educate lightly and entertain greatly."

When Justice Sinclair used to show a slide with kids sitting in tidy little rows looking at a blackboard, I always wondered – who decided that was a good idea?

It's not a reflection of Indigenous ways of knowing.

We want you to do it your way.

I hope you will understand that, as you develop curricula and develop those on-the-land units, that you will know you have an ally in us.

When I was in Vancouver for the Indspire awards I was delighted to meet Chief Jim Ochiese of the Foothills Ojibway First Nation in Alberta, who's also an instructor at Yellowhead Tribal College.

Chief Ochiese teaches a Land Based Values Teacher Training to teachers at the Ochiese and Sunchild reserve schools and I wish him all the best with his plans to grow this training. 

In the places that are seeing success, we know that it is because the focus on language and culture is working, and people understand that everyone learns differently.

I'm thrilled to see that we now have more evidence that when you combine excellent teaching with land-based programming, you are able to turn around the lives of struggling offenders and those struggling with addictions.  

Across the country educators are asking – why do we have to wait until children are in trouble before they have the chance to get excited for learning with excellent teachers in Mother Nature's classroom?

My Role – A New Partnership

Today my remarks are to underline the fact that we get it.

We understand that language and culture and cultural identity are going to be hugely important. 

My role in all of this is to walk the path of reconciliation in an honourable way, and create a new partnership in First Nations education.

I see some aspects of my role are to enable and celebrate success.

First, to enable – to pull all the levers I can pull that help you do what's best for education in your communities…

…To help develop and share evidence, build capacity, and transform that into solutions that work for you.

…To make sure the funding is available for you to continue to create foundations of cultural identity and quality teaching.

There is no one-size fits all approach when it comes to education.

We need to make sure we're supporting you in creating the educational system that will be successful for you.

Second, my role is to celebrate the successes of the fantastic efforts in your communities across the country, and advocate for strong partnerships and student success, across departments, governments and sectors.

The vision I share with you is seeing your students not just close the gap in educational outcomes, but become dynamic leaders and teachers– leaders that will inspire and motivate all Canadians as we move into the next 150 years of our country.

New Schools Announcement

As an education community, you are experts in the design of your schools.

You are also the experts in how they should be built, renovated and organized to meet student needs.

The federal government wants to support First Nation-led initiatives that help you do just that.

We share your commitment to improving education infrastructure in First Nations communities.

That's why, today, I'm pleased to announce support for nine innovative infrastructure projects that will result in new school facilities – for over 20 First Nations communities across the country.

These nine First Nation-led projects will be supported by the Innovation Fund component of INAC's Education Infrastructure Fund.

This will provide access to support for each of their innovative approaches to school construction, such as bundling projects and contracts, employing modular and pre-fabricated construction, and using alternative financing measures.

The nine communities are:

  • Squiala First Nation;
  • Old Masset First Nation;
  • Westbank First Nation;
  • Adams Lake First Nation;
  • Blood Tribe/Kainai;
  • Meadow Lake Tribal Council;
  • Fisher River First Nation;
  • Southeast Resource Development Council Corp; and
  • Innu Takuaikan Uashat mak Mani-Utenam.

I look forward to working with these and other groups in making these ground-breaking projects a reality.

Concluding Thoughts – A Genuine Partnership  

We have a lot to do together.

It's time for a genuine partnership.

As we move forward, our government will put an end to top-down solutions, in favour of First Nations control over First Nations education.

We will move forward in genuine partnership on the vital work of reconciliation outlined in the TRC's Calls to Action.

It's not by mistake that the Prime Minister took the youth portfolio himself, and put the relationship with Indigenous people in Canada into the mandate letter of every Minister.

We believe that education is central to reconciliation.

As Justice Sinclair said many times, "education, or what passed for it, was what got us into this situation, and it's only education that's going to lead us out of it."

It's the key to opening doors and to the opportunity for success.

But it's also the key to eliminating stereotypes, and eliminating the misunderstandings that are holding us back as a country.

There is an Ojibway word that many of you may know: Giniigaaniimenaaning (Ginny – Gah - ny – me - Nah – ning).

It is a word for "looking forward," with the deeper meaning of looking ahead to future generations.

It is the title of Métis artist Christi Belcourt's beautiful stained glass window, in the Centre Block of Parliament Hill.

That artwork commemorates the legacy of Indian Residential Schools survivors and their families.

The window sits above the Members of Parliament entrance to the lobby of the House of Commons:

A reminder to all of us who enter to never forget.

It tells a story, from the bottom left corner of the glass to the bottom right, about looking ahead in hope, strength and resilience.

The middle right panel contains the words "I love you, my child," written in Cree, Inuktitut, Anishnaabemowin and Mi'kmaq.

The child's grandfather sings a traditional song signifying the restoration of songs, dance, ceremonies and languages.

We are all looking ahead for this brighter future, where Indigenous pedagogy flourishes, and not the tidy little rows and the sterile Victorian classrooms.

Thank you, Merci, Miigwetch, Qujanamiik, Marsee, Mahsi Cho.

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