Legal experts weigh in on how UNDRIP can help First Nations achieve self-determined education systems

Last week, FNWSC invited Indigenous legal scholars to a roundtable discussion on how Canada can meet the objectives of UNDRIP as it relates to the goal of First Nation Control of First Nation Education. 

Indigenous rights lawyer Randall Kahgee and Justice Harry S. LaForme, both representatives with the firm OKT, spoke about the need for Indigenous communities to hold the federal government to account on First Nation jurisdiction issues.  

Kahgee, a former chief of Saugeen First Nation, specializes in Indigenous rights law, particularly in community-based processes and government-to-government negotiations. 

Justice LaForme was Canada’s first Indigenous appellate judge and has published several articles on Indigenous law and justice, topics he continues to speak on to this day. Now retired, he is a member of Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation. 

Information gathered at the roundtable is being used as part of the Collective’s UNDRIPA Initiative, to inform the Government of Canada on the expectations and perspectives of First Nations Peoples when it comes to what it means to have self-determined education systems. 


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In a conversation with FNWSC First Nations education directors, the law experts spoke about what is needed from a legal perspective to ensure First Nations achieve full control over their education systems in accordance with UNDRIP (the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples). 

“The first thing we have to do is resolve this jurisdictional question. When Canada says it recognizes the inherent right of Indigenous people to educate their own communities, what do they really mean?” said Laforme during the two-hour discussion. “We have to make sure it’s what we think it means.”

Kaghee agreed, adding: "It has to be Indigenous communities driving the process. The opportunity is here to set the priorities and to say ‘Canada, you need to come to the table and make sure we have the capacity and resources to do this.

“Otherwise, how are we fulfilling the community expectations on UNDRIP.”

UNDRIP is an international instrument that affirms the minimum standards of human rights and wellbeing of Indigenous Peoples throughout the world. It was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2007, and endorsed by the government of Canada in 2016.

Specific to education, UNDRIP affirms the rights of Indigenous Peoples to pass on traditions and  knowledge through education systems that are rooted in Indigenous languages and cultural ways.

Critical need: Funding for major capital is essential to self-determination

Full jurisdiction requires funds to develop local curriculum, expand language programming, implement specialized training for teachers, major capital to update and replace facilities, invest in land based learning and pilot projects and support local mechanisms of data collection that connects learning outcomes to community goals.   

“There are many barriers to exercising full control of those education systems – one of the largest being the lack of funding for major capital – which are a fiscal responsibility of the federal government,” FNWSC Intergovernmental Relations Lead Gabriel Haythornthwaite said at the meeting.

“The Canadian government says they want First Nations to have control over their education, but they deny that capability by refusing to allow the means, including major capital.”

Canada's Action plan to meet it's obligations to UNDRIP

In June 2021, the federal government passed the UNDRIP Act (UNDRIPA) which states the government must implement an National Action Plan to achieve the objectives of UNDRIP by June 2023.

Six months later, it announced funding to support Indigenous-led consultations on developing that plan. The UNDRIPA Initiative is a response to Justice Canada’s invitation to engage in its UNDRIP Act.  

“We are the right people to inform the government on First Nations education systems,” said White-Eye. “Article 14 of UNDRIP is the right for Indigenous Peoples to establish and control their educational systems – that speaks to the very purpose of our Collective.”

FNWSC is a group of eight First Nations in Ontario that formed in 2016 to achieve full and unfettered First Nations control of local lifelong-learning education systems, including schools on reserve.

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