Maskwacis schools are going to be able to create their own education with stable funding thanks to a historic agreement with the Government of Canada.
This development has been decades in the making and brings all the schools together under one umbrella, the Maskwacis Education Schools Commission (MESC). Signed Friday afternoon, there are two important facets to the MESC agreement: equal and sustainable funding, plus the authority for MESC to create and deliver its own Cree culture-based education.
The first major step to this process was a signing between the four nations in November 2017 where all four Maskwacis chiefs signed two agreements. The first being the Maskwacis declaration on education and the second to confirm MESC as the education authority.
MESC will set the stage this fall for a Cree-based education with more developments unfolding as the years progress. The 10-year agreement is considered a landmark moment and the four nation chiefs, Samson Cree Chief Vernon Saddleback, Montana Cree Chief Leonard Standing on the Road, Louis Bull Cree Chief Irvin Bull and Ermineskin Cree Chief Craig Makinaw, as well as Treaty 6 Grand Chief Wilton Littlechild along with Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde.
Canada’s Minister of Indigenous Services (ISC) Jane Philpott was also on hand and Bear Park was full of attendees and members of the press.
Chief Bellegarde pointed out that this agreement is not only about the children, but also about reaffirming treaty rights. “What we’re witnessing today is an enforcement or an implementation of that right,” said Bellegarde.
He said past education requirements in the form of residential schools was not asked for. “We didn’t ask for that genocide because that’s what that was.”
Bellegarde pointed out that elders used to tell their children to walk in two worlds; the first being to learn the Cree education and the second being to learn in the modern school systems.
“Our little ones need to walk in both worlds and they need to feel good about being nêhiyawak (plains Cree) people,” said Bellegarde, adding that in spite of the residential schools First Nations people are still celebrating their culture.
Looking back at the days when the treaties were first signed, chiefs and leaders’ prayers were to see an agreement with balanced education, said Chief Littlechild.
“Now we have that opportunity to build that foundation in the four elements of life, in the Cree way,” said Littlechild.
“From today, now we can’t blame anyone else…today we commit to our own responsibility.”
Minister Philpott confirmed this agreement is something that Maskwacis leaders have been advocating for decades.
“What’s happening here in Maskwacis will be something that First Nations will be looking at as a model,” she added.
She looks forward to seeing how the agreement will benefit Maskwacis children and youths.
“This is all in the spirit of self-determination. We’ve said as a government that we recognize and respect the right to self-determination,” said Philpott.
“The government should not be the one that’s running the schools,” she added.
Past education models for Maskwacis, and other First Nation communities, involved a grant writing process to garner student funding. The work was often times extensive and unnecessary.
“First of all it was not equitable. So schools on reserve were not funded to the same extent that provincial schools were across the country and it was dependent on a whole range of proposals,” said Philpott.
This new funding model provides long-term funding for equal education and guaranteed funding for full-day Kindergarten, plus language, care and land training. Schools will work together to develop the curriculum as well as professional development.
For Brian Wildcat, MESC superintendent, this has been a long-time coming. The agreement will help schools reach a higher level of success along with ensuring the Cree culture is a big part of that education.
The goal is to eventually have a full curriculum created by MESC, explained Wildcat. Currently the majority of the learning follows Alberta Education structures, with some Cree knowledge woven within it.
“In the past couple of years we’ve started the process of infusion of the Cree culture into the Alberta curriculum,” said Wildcat.
This new agreement will assist MESC to develop its own curriculum. It’s such an exciting endeavour that Alberta and Saskatchewan First Nations communities have reached out to MESC leaders.
Wildcat pointed out that the strength of this agreement came with more than 30 community discussions with Maskwacis members, along with input from chiefs and councils.
Next up for MESC will be 10 years of growth and development.
“I feel like we’ve put together a very strong administrative team and strong school leaders,” said Wildcat.
In the fall, all 11 schools and 2,300 students will come under the umbrella of MESC and its cultural and educational infusion. For the students it’s created a strong sense of pride in their own culture, explained Nina Makinaw, MESC board chair.
“A lot of them are proud. When they realize who they are. That they’re Cree and that these are their songs and these are their traditions. This is how we used to live. It just instills pride in them,” said Makinaw.