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The Manitoba First Nations School System: The Spirit of Wahbung

The Manitoba First Nations School System (MFNSS), a First Nations-led initiative to create a new, culturally relevant, high-quality education system, commences operations in September 2017. The MFNSS will support First Nations schools, improving the quality and relevance of education, academic standards, and student outcomes, including retention, completion and graduation rates.

The Manitoba First Nation Education Resource Centre (MFNERC) signed the Education Governance Agreement with the Honourable Carolyn Bennett, Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, for the creation of the MFNSS in December 2016. While some viewed that signing ceremony as the historic beginning of a First Nations led school division, this accomplishment is a vision set in motion almost 50 years ago.

In 1969, the federal government produced a 'Statement  of the Government of Canada on Indian Policy,' which became popularly known as the 'White Paper.' That document called for relinquishing all rights, beliefs, and identity to ensure that First Nations could achieve full participation in Canadian socio-political and economic life.

First Nations rejected this idea and in 1971, the Manitoba Indian Brotherhood (now the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs) articulated their own views of the future with the historic document 'Wahbung: Our Tomorrows.' This Indigenous approach to development highlighted education as a major factor for advancement and recommended that First Nations manage their own schools.

First Nations began this process; however, chronic underfunding and lack of supports eventually required the creation of an organization that could help meet the needs of those schools. The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs (AMC) established MFNERC in 1998, to provide administrative, technical, language and educational supports to First Nations Schools in Manitoba. 

In 2012, the AMC gave MFNERC the mandate to offer similar services (which in a provincial education system are provided by a school board) including services for teachers, while also continuing their work on developing other enhanced education systems for First Nations. 

The Partnership Transition Initiative (PTI) was a pilot project initiated in 2011 with Ginew School on the Roseau River Anishinabe First Nation. MFNERC worked with the school and INAC to support development and implementation of a school success plan, focusing on student achievement in the areas of literacy, numeracy, and student retention. During late 2013 and early 2014, at the request of First Nations Chiefs and Councils, MFNERC went out to various First Nations to provide an overview of the School Division concept.

In 2012, MFNERC began the formal process of curriculum development to meet First Nations educational needs. Our Gifts is a First Nations Curriculum Framework (FNCF) developed for learners in Nursery to Grade 12. Through ongoing consultations with Elders, educators, community leaders and parents, the FNCF will formally recognize ways of educating children from a First Nations perspective. Meantime, the MFNSS will be responsible for adapting the provincial curriculum to incorporate locally identified needs and priorities including language and culture.

The MFNSS will remain under the umbrella of the MFNERC governance structure during Phase One. The MFNERC Board will establish operating budgets and set school division policies, resulting in larger overall budgets and greater financial and programming flexibility. Funding will flow directly from INAC to the MFNSS, which will administer funds for the participating First Nations schools.

"The future looks bright for our children and youth with the increased funding that will allow for culturally relevant and superior academic programming," says Lorne Keeper, Executive Director of MFNERC.

The priorities of each First Nations School will be identified by local First Nations representatives who would be responsible for seeking meaningful involvement of parents and community in providing input into education. The MFNSS will ensure that the standards for a high quality education and school improvement will be applied equally to all the schools, as well as ensuring the standards will be administered utilizing best practices for effective schools for First Nations students.

"We will have the ability to attract and retain education staff, share resources, and provide students with access to a wide range of opportunities," says Director of Systems Development for the MFNSS, Dr. Nora Murdock. "Our aim is to stem teacher turnover by paying salaries comparable to those of provincial teachers."

First Nations leaders are pleased that the call for an education process that reflected First Nations worldview, culture and values is becoming a reality.

"The Manitoba First Nations School System represents an incremental step forward in a renewed fiscal relationship between First Nations in Manitoba and the government of Canada," says Grand Chief Sheila North Wilson of the Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, Inc. "It is an expression of collaborative work towards First Nations control of First Nations education in Manitoba."

The MFNSS is also an example of the Government of Canada's commitment to reconciliation through a renewed relationship with Indigenous peoples based on the recognition of rights, respect, cooperation, and partnership.

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