Skip to content

Landmark agreement ushers in new era of equity for FN students

The new engagement framework, which has been described as "monumental," will see four First Nations in the region gain equitable representation within the Superior-Greenstone District School Board.

BIIGTIGONG NISHNAABEG FIRST NATION — Equitable education for First Nation students in Northern Ontario just made big strides.

On May 6, representatives from four First Nations including Biigtigong Nishnaabeg,  Biinjitiwaabik Zaaging Anishinaabek (BZA), Long Lake #58 First Nation, and Netmizaaggamig Nishnaabeg were joined by members of the Superior-Greenstone District School Board (SGDSB) and the Anishinabek Education System (AES) to sign a landmark engagement framework agreement designed to foster equitable collaboration between all parties involved.

A special event was held at Biigtigong Nishnaabeg Endzhi-gkinoohmaading (Biigtigong Nishaabeg Elementary School) beginning with a drum circle, a pipe ceremony and an exchange of gifts, followed by several speeches.

A common thread throughout all speeches was the fact this new agreement further supports the sovereign rights of First Nations communities - particularly when it comes to how students who live outside of their home communities receive education.

Chief Judy Desmoulin of Long Lake #58 First Nation said this an exciting chance to bridge the distance between her community and kids who leave to go to school.

Long Lake #58 has over 1,800 members, with around 450 living in the community while the rest are spread across the region in Thunder Bay and Greenstone.

“This is a very important partnership. In our community, we can do whatever we need to do to ensure that our students are going to be successful - whatever they want to do or wherever they want to go - but we haven’t had the opportunity to do so for our other kids who are elsewhere. Having an agreement like this can make that happen - we can be involved,” she said.

She added the possibilities are endless in terms of what precedence this agreement will set.

“People grow from this. People can learn to think differently and see things differently and, therefore, the ripple effect is that we are understood more.

“When we started working on our Anishinabek Education System . . . we wanted the system to help our kids understand who they truly were. We have this awesome opportunity now to do that, so when our children come to us everyday they can learn a little bit more about who they are and who they can become,” she said.

Biigtigong Nishnaabeg’s Education Director, Lisa Michano-Courchene, echoed Desmoulin’s sentiments, calling the new agreement “monumental.”

Much like Long Lake #58, there are many members of Biigtigong Nishnaabeg who live across the region and - on top of that - students enrolled in high school must attend classes at Marathon High School since Biigtigong does not have its own yet.

“It’s a stepping stone - a very large step in our region and our community for education. Our main priority is to bring a voice from an Indigenous perspective, particularly an Anishinabek perspective. A lot of our kids are attending provincially-funded schools and we are not simply people who pay invoices - we want a voice in some of the decisions and some of the things that occur within those institutions. It’s important to us to take on some of that responsibility,” Michano-Courchene said.

She said this is a chance to ensure students who are attending provincially-funded schools across the region can engage with a curriculum that is more reflective of their own culture and their First Nation.

Michano-Courchene said this agreement gives each First Nation equal influence over the development and implementation of policies as well.

“I’m hoping, through this agreement, those areas and much more will provide opportunities for voices and different perspectives to be included,” she said.

Michano-Courchene said the four First Nations involved in this agreement have “blazed the trail” in the sense that this is the first agreement of its kind in the region.

She said she knows there are already other First Nations in the region who are interested in following suit and she predicts they will be working hard at achieving something similar.

Nicole Morden-Cormier, director of the SGDSB, said with over 50 per cent of the SGDSB’s students identifying as Indigenous and the board’s focus on an “equity of outcomes” for students, this partnership was a “natural” next step.

“It is very difficult when one party is making all of the decisions. It does not promote equity of outcomes. We recognized, in working with our partners in the Anishinabek Education System, there was more work that needed to be done. What this framework does is it dictates the way that we will work together. 

“People often use the term ‘consultation’ - consultation is one way. ‘Engagement’ is the term that we have chosen to use because it means both ways - it means all of us sitting together, all around that circular table as equal partners, learning from and with each other, for the betterment of the educational experience for all students,” she said.

Morden-Cormier used the school year calendar as an example of an area in which the SGDSB and AES have an opportunity to make things more equitable.

“We know that our school year calendar has to reflect the different traditional and cultural celebrations and recognitions of First Nations people,” she said.

Another example she gave was the need to engage with the AES when it comes to the “de-streaming” process - i.e. removing the separate ‘applied’ and ‘academic’ streams for certain courses so that all students learn in the same classroom.

“The decisions that I have learned to make through my education were my own - they were my decisions, they were decisions that I was only using my own lived experience to make and my educational experience to make. 

“Sitting with First Nations communities, they were offering us different ways of thinking and one of the things that I often believe in is that ‘everybody gets the same.’ When we’re thinking about the inequalities of the past, we need to actually think about everybody getting what they need. That’s a very broad way of saying, let’s meet the needs of every child but that doesn’t look the same for every child,” she said.

Speaking of the inequalities of the past, Chief Desmoulin put it aptly when she highlighted what it will mean for every child to get what they need - as opposed to more of the same - thanks to this new agreement.

“As we lead toward being truly self-governing, this is the only way we are going to be able to heal from everything that we’ve gone through. Our schools are a great place to break that cycle because we can do it for our little ones. They will not have the firsthand experience of any kind of ill treatment. That is our hope - we truly break the cycle and this generation of children can live and have the opportunities to be who they want to be,” Desmoulin said.

Austin Campbell, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

About the Author: Austin Campbell, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Austin Campbell is a local journal initiative reporter covering stories in the Superior North region.
Read more


push icon
Be the first to read breaking stories. Enable push notifications on your device. Disable anytime.
No thanks