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Indigenous Education Policy: Research Notes

Opening Paragraph

Four percent of the Indigenous population in Canada lives across the three territories (approximately 2% in Nunavut, 1.5% in the Northwest Territories, and 1% in the Yukon). Despite these percentages appearing small, Indigenous people make up the largest share of the population in two of the three territories. In Nunavut, Indigenous people make up for almost 90% of the population. In the Northwest Territories, over half of the population is Indigenous. In the Yukon, just under 25% of the population is Indigenous. As a result, a comparison of the educational policies between these three territories is able to most accurately reflect the current state of educational outcomes for Indigenous students, the impact of the policies that are in place, and what can be learned from Indigenous educational policy when reflected through a larger Indigenous population.

Although each territory has framework for policy development relating to Indigenous education, there is no standardized system which helps accurately portray current academic achievement outcomes for Indigenous students. Consequently, there is uneven policy development and approaches to encourage higher academic achievement.  There is a wide range of existing polices, programs, and supports that exist to improve Indigenous educational outcomes. Conversely, there is a notable lack of available data with concrete answers to how many Indigenous students exist in the Canadian school systems, no jurisdictional harmony, and few definitive answers around what constitutes high academic achievement. Legislative changes alone are unlikely to create improvements in the lives of students, but reforms can create new policy, which is a positive course of action. This vast array of educational policy relating to Indigenous students has led to  little to no positive outcomes for Indigenous students themselves. A comparison of educational policy related to Indigenous studies and students across the three territories (The Yukon, The Northwest Territories, and Nunavut) can be used to help explain the educational outcomes and academic achievement for Indigenous students in the North.


Subtopic 1: Historical overview of Indigenous Education in Canada

Prior to the arrival of Europeans, Indigenous youth were educated through traditional, holistic, community based, and experiential forms of education. From contact to the mid 1800’s, schools were operated by missionaries focused on teaching religion. The goal of the Indian Residential School (IRS) System, was to assimilate the ‘Indians’ into European thought, values, and practices. Indigenous families were legally compelled to turn their children over to the custody of IRS authorities. Children lived away from their families and cultures, and there is overwhelming evidence for ongoing physical, emotional, sexual, and psychological abuse.

In the early 1950’s, the federal government moved towards a policy of integration. Territorial governments were provided facilities and teachers for Indigenous students who were previously a part of the IRS. This policy, known as integration, was enforced with the expectation Indigenous students would adapt to another new learning environment and fit into existing educational systems. In 1972, the National Indian Brotherhood (now the Assembly of First Nations) drafted a new policy statement entitled Indian Control of Indian Education. The federal government adopted this policy, and in theory, Indigenous education is one of ‘local control’. In practice, ‘local control’ has meant a devolved and limited amount of control for Indigenous political bodies.

Subtopic 2: Self-Determination

There continues to be advocation for the recognition of the inherent right to self-determination for Indigenous peoples. Self-determination is simple; it means Indigenous people take control over their lives to ensure their rights, languages, and cultures continue to flourish and exist into the future. As stated in the International Bill of Rights of the United Nations, all peoples have the right to self-determination. In the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, all Indigenous peoples have the right to establish and control their own educational systems and institutions.

Education advances human development. Self-knowledge and self-sufficiency are necessary for a people to attain a healthy and stable society. Indigenous peoples have never relinquished their right to self-government. The Royal Proclamation of 1763 specifically recognizes the inherent right to self-government by Indigenous peoples within Canada. Although the government enacted legislation that hindered the exercise of Indigenous self-government, it cannot extinguish Indigenous rights through legislation.

In recognizing the full jurisdiction of Indigenous governments over all areas promoting the development of Indigenous peoples, the government is able to give Indigenous peoples more control over their education and allow Indigenous communities to impact and enforce any policies and legislation related to education.

Subtopic 3: Jurisdiction

Jurisdiction conveys a right to exercise full or a measure of authority over a certain subject-matter. In international law, jurisdiction is the right of a sovereign state to determine rights and duties by legislation. Defining jurisdiction is important because it helps define the self-government structure of an Indigenous group, and also helps separate the three territories and the different approaches that have been taken relating to Indigenous education.

Subtopic 4: Indigenous Education

“First Nations peoples understand that learning is a formal and informal, instinctive, and experiential lifelong journey, encompassing early childhood learning, elementary and secondary school, career, vocational and technical training, post-secondary education and adult learning. The primary role of holistically balanced First Nations learning system is to transmit First Nations ancestral languages, traditions, cultures and histories, while at the same time preparing and making accessible to the learner the support and tools that will allow them to achieve their full potential in any setting they choose.” (FNCFNE, 2010)

There continues to be an increase in Indigenous youth in Canada. This ever growing population is demonstrating both higher educational accomplishments, but also, a higher percentage of dropping out. Moreover, there is more awareness to the lack of equity for Indigenous education evident through the absence of language teaching, culturally responsive curriculum, and the construction of new or improved schools.

Subtopic 5: Jordan’s Principle and Inuit Child First Initiative

Jordan’s Principle makes sure all First Nation children living in Canada can access products, services, and supports that are needed when they need them. The principle is named in memory of Jordan River Anderson, a young boy from Norway House Cree Nation in Manitoba, who died when unable to receive proper health services because the federal and provincial governments could not agree on who should pay for his care. Jordan’s Principle works with the territories and First Nations partners to help with health, social, and educational services. Jordan’s Principle has provided speech therapy and educational supports.

The Inuit Child First Initiative makes sure all Inuit children living in Canada can access products, services, and supports that are needed when they need them. For education, the Inuit Child First Initiative can provide tutoring services, educational assistants, school transportation, psycho-educational assessments, and assistive technologies.

Type of Research


  • All three territories have been audited recently with reports by the Auditor General of Canada. These reports will guide this paper. These reports have examined whether the Department of Education in each Territory delivered education programs that were inclusive and reflected Indigenous culture and languages, and whether it assessed and addressed gaps in student outcomes.

Relative literature

  • Indian Control of Indian Education

  • Tradition and Education: Towards a Vision of our Future

  • Aboriginal Self-Government - Federal Policy Guide

  • RCAP

  • Macpherson report on Tradition and Education

Research Design

Key Questions

  • What is the meaning of Indigenous Educational Jurisdiction

  • How is educational jurisdiction defined in the territories, and what type/degree of educational jurisdiction is exercised

  • How is Indigenous educational jurisdiction exercised in these areas?

  • What legal mechanism does each nation use?

  • What legislation and policies are required?

  • How are the roles and responsibilities defined?

  • What structures and bodies are in place to exercise educational jurisdiction?

  • Money?

  • Three separate sections to define the Yukon, NWT, and Nunvuts educational policies

  • For each territory: need to look at: educational provisions in the settlement of modern land claims agreement; agreement through the treaty process; self-government agreements; enactment of legislation


  • There are 28 schools across Yukon, with almost half based in small rural communities outside Whitehorse. According to the Department, more than half of rural students identify themselves as being from one of Yukon’s 14 First Nations.

  • There are no schools in Yukon for which Yukon First Nations have complete responsibility, but discussions are under way for Yukon First Nations governments to assume greater authority and control over education for their people.

  •  the Department’s mandate, as described in the Yukon Education Strategic Plan 2014–2019, is “to deliver accessible and quality education to all Yukon learners.” However, the plan identified key challenges in meeting this mandate for Kindergarten through Grade 12 students, which included managing resources effectively in rural and urban schools, improving Yukon First Nations student achievement, and collaborating with Yukon First Nations governments.

  • the Yukon Department of Education did not know whether its programs met the needs of students, particularly those with special needs and those from Yukon First Nations.

  • Department still had not identified the underlying causes of long-standing gaps in student outcomes between First Nations and other Yukon students. These gaps included a lower high school completion rate for First Nations students compared with other students

  •  gaps in student outcomes continued to exist between First Nations and non–First Nations students. We also found that gaps in student outcomes existed between rural and urban students.

  • Land claims agreement: Umbrella Final Agreement: Council for Yukon Indians

  • Settlement agreement was a land claims agreement within the meaning of Section 35 of the Constitution Act 1982

  • Yukon First Nations may negotiate the devolution of programs and services dealing with education to First Nations

  • Parties to the agreement could also negotiate guaranteed representation for Yukon First Nations on government commissions, councils, boards, and committees to deal with education

The Northwest Territories

  • School planning and operations are guided by the Education Act, The Aboriginal Student Achievement Education Plan, Department of Education Ministerial Directives, and various Alberta documents

  • Aboriginal Student Achievement Education Plan

  • “an effective, relevant NWT education system for all learners” and “An associated, practical reporting, management and accountability framework.”

  • Language and culture: “Culture-based education is education that reflects, validates and promotes the cultures and languages of the Aboriginal peoples of the NWT. “

  • Foundational documents: Dene Kede, Inuuqatigiit, Departmental Directive on Aboriginal Language and Culture-Based Education

  • Cultural Experiences

  • Elders in Schools

  • Divisional Educational Councils: “The District Education Authorities (DEAs) are composed of elected individuals who represent their community’s interests in the planning and delivery of educational programming in their school(s).”

  • Caveats for Tlicho and Yellowknife. The Tłı̨ chǫ Community Services Agency (TCSA) operates with the authority of a DEC and each Tlicho community has representation on the TCSA. However, each Tlicho community does not have a DEA. In Yellowknife, the Yellowknife Education District #1 (YK1) and the Yellowknife Public Denomination District (Yellowknife Catholic Schools (YCS)) operate with the authority of a DEA. These are the only two education bodies with the ability to raise operating funds through taxation. The Dettah and Ndilo DEAs are the most recently established education bodies and they contract their superintendency through YK1.

  • Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada (CIRNAC) NT Region supports the education of Aboriginal peoples through a variety of First Nation and Inuit programs and services, and provides a number of educational resources to all Northerners.

  • The results achieved by Northwest Territories students, however, lag behind those in many regions of Canada. Statistics Canada data from 2006–07 shows that while the graduation rate for secondary schools across Canada was 71 percent, in the Northwest Territories it was 55 percent (compared with 65 percent in Alberta, 68 percent in Yukon, and 30 percent in Nunavut). The Government of the Northwest Territories recognizes that improving education results is crucial to the territory’s social and economic development.

  •  A relatively new education system. The last 60 years have seen significant changes in how education is viewed and delivered in the Northwest Territories. Until the mid-1940s, education was provided mainly by church missions, with students usually housed in residences in a few larger centres. Beginning in the late 1950s, the federal government initiated a development program that included education; in 1969, it transferred education to the territorial government. The subsequent establishment of education councils (the equivalent of school boards in provinces), starting in the 1980s, increased local control of education. In recent years, significant developments in the education system have included the expansion of school programs to offer grades 10, 11, and 12 in small communities; the introduction of community learning centres (adult education) in most communities; an increase in the number of Aboriginal teachers in classrooms; and increased post-secondary offerings.


  •  The Department of Education is responsible for programs and services that support early childhood education and the Kindergarten to Grade 12 school system. The Department is also responsible for guiding the development of governance, policy, and strategic planning for adult learning in the territory. This responsibility includes programs that support equality of opportunity and encourage adult literacy, numeracy, and essential employability skills. The Department’s vision is to have more well-educated and self-reliant Nunavummiut, high school graduation rates that are on par with the rest of Canada, and a majority of Nunavut youth graduating from high school, college, or university, with the same level of skills and abilities as graduates from anywhere in Canada.

  • Nunavut’s education system had a number of gaps and barriers that made it difficult for high school students and adult learners to succeed academically and transition to post-secondary education and employment. Many high school students needed more than one year to complete a grade, which extended the time required to complete high school, with many leaving school before graduating. Addressing the challenges faced by high school students requires contributions from many stakeholders. However, we found that the Department of Education did not have a strategy that outlined actions it and other partners could take to help students graduate and transition from high school to post-secondary education and employment. Furthermore, despite difficulties hiring and keeping staff, the Department did not have a recruitment and retention strategy to address its human resource needs.


Reform Options and Models

  • There are several options for reform

  • Expanded territorial jurisdiction and responsibility, expanded federal jurisdiction and responsibility, expanded Indigenous jurisdiction and responsibility, co-operative options

Organizational Levels/RCAP Model

  • Local community, nation level, multi-nation organizations, Canada-wide networks

Meaning of Indigenous Educational Jurisdiction

  • No clarity or consensus on what educational jurisdiction means

  • There are different types of jurisdiction (constitutional, delegated, inherent)

The Use of Self-Government Agreements

  • SGA’s can help measure some sort of jurisdiction over education

  • DIAND: 80 tables have been established to bring FN and Inuit communities together to negotiate self-government arrangements


  • The biggest barrier to exercising educational jurisdiction and educational policy

  • Little adequate funding provided

  • Funding needed to conduct needs assessments, formulate long term plans, establish authorities, provide required training, support education


Research currently suggests there are six key areas which are limiting the understanding of Indigenous educational policy. The process of collecting data that identifies Indigenous students faces substantial challenges. The availability of results from jurisdictional assessments for Indigenous students is limited. Few measures are reported that satisfy the wishes of Indigenous communities relating to social, physical, and spiritual well-being of individuals. There is limited data relating to the barriers of Indigenous student success (such as absenteeism and transitions to schools in different areas). There is a lack of data relating to the efforts being used to overcome specific barriers to Indigenous student success. Finally, early childhood assessment tools are not consistently administered.

Many of these gaps in data are a result of the costly or contentious nature of policy and programs. The role of targeted funding for Indigenous education as it relates to achieving tangible improvements in educational goals needs to be further developed. The effects of early childhood education is understudied, providing further data gaps. The effectiveness of interventions to increase community engagement has been noted as important, but research has not been fully facilitated. The impact of culture, although studied by researchers, has not been undertaken for specific regions in the North which hinders data on academic outcomes for Indigenous students in the territories.

Jurisdictions can develop their assessment data by expanding efforts in Indigenous self-identification, the scope and frequency of collection, and linking data between longitudinal student records. Territories can help support the creation of a stronger evidence base by facilitating analysis through initiatives such as incorporating evaluation into the implementation of new programs and policies, providing researcher access to administrative records, and sharing knowledge of policies with researchers.

Success for stronger data requires ongoing communication with the communities, Indigenous organizations, educators, administrators, policy-makers, and researchers. In consultation with Indigenous stakeholders, current administrative and assessment data collection should be identified and strategies for overcoming them should be considered. Discussions should be initiated with researchers interested in Indigenous education in order to encourage ethical data creation that can inform policy development. Research can be geared towards bringing the territories together with Indigenous stakeholders to discuss report recommendations and common interest. Better data and evidence can help contribute to policy development. By identifying student needs, program quality and delivery can be improved, inform decision making about investments in policies, and increase accountability to stakeholders.


There is consistent and compelling cries for governments to make meaningful Indigenous educational reforms in order to close the educational gap between Indigenous peoples and non-Indigenous peoples. With full cooperation and joint efforts between both parties, change can be enacted. Indigenous peoples are passionate about the education of their youth, and should continue pursuing what is rightfully theirs.

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Research Topic: · A comparison of educational policy across the three territories Sub-research · What are the policies in each of the territories · What is causing the differences in policies and poli

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