Almost 30 years ago, the Mi’kmaq First Nations in Nova Scotia decided they needed control over the education of their children to improve poor outcomes in their community schools. The seeds planted by the Mi’kmaw Kina’matnewey (MK) education authority have grown over the last three decades and blossomed into an Indigenous education system superior to the non-Indigenous education system around them. I asked Blaire Gould, Executive Director Mi’kmaw Kina’matnewey, how they took over the education of Mi’kmaq children.
Bruce Valpy (BV) – Hi Blaire, so can you give me an idea how the Mi’kmaw took control of their children’s education?
Blaire Gould (BG): There are 13 communities. When things first started in ’91 – ‘92, the agreement at the time was to develop a political accord that affirmed that all 13 Mi’kmaq Communities in Nova Scotia agree in principle, that we support the idea of jurisdiction from K to 12. Also, that concept of lifelong learning, so into post-secondary, early education, all of that stuff.
So, both political and federal legislation passed in ‘97. We entered into another agreement with the province in the early 2000s around students we’re sending to provincial schools. We want data from those students. The government is a really good partner here in Nova Scotia. I know it’s not a common thing to have. But we’re very fortunate to have, regardless of the politics of the day or the party of the day, we have held a really good relationship with Nova Scotia, specifically the Department of Education, Communities’ Cultural Heritage, departments like that. Fisheries is another one but…
I think there’s really good intentions around enabling us to exercise our jurisdiction. And the province really just allowed that to happen without hesitation. So, those components certainly didn’t come overnight. But are now seeing some big milestones come ahead in the 30 years.
BV: Yellowknife is very much a southern enclave. I’m from New Brunswick, and many, many people are from the south. We have our own school boards here in Yellowknife. So, I suspect our Yellowknife numbers are very much like your numbers and like your surrounding numbers.
As soon as you get into the communities, then you get into the Dene, Metis and Inuvialuit Indigenous population. And things go off a cliff. Now, they’ve had schools there for quite some time. I don’t think there’s any lack of effort on the part of the Department of Education. But again, the Department of Education is based in Yellowknife. The education authorities, they’re sort of set up with elected board members. But board members can be sent on their way. And if they don’t have – whoever the Executive Director is – if they don’t match their skills, it’s very difficult to question them. And you’re kind of put into a box as to what you can do in terms of hiring, or firing, or change, or anything like that.
So, how much does culture play into it? Graduation numbers of Indigenous students in Yellowknife at about 45%, which is about 10% higher than the communities outside Yellowknife. Kind of suggests it isn’t necessarily the quality of the school board or the quality of the education that’s being delivered, it’s the cultural appropriateness of the education that’s being delivered. The culture is a gap between the people doing the delivering and the people receiving the education.
And then you sort of put on the layer of the residential schools, that makes the gap that much wider. Do you have teachers in the system who are Mi’kmaw?
BV: So, is that a priority?
BG: It was a definite priority when we first started in ‘97. There were cohorts immediately launched. St. Francis Xavier being the first one who took us up on our offer to deliver cohorts. But we couldn’t just deliver any kind of cohort. We had to be respectful that there was interest, that these individuals were working in whatever jobs that they had, had families, they couldn’t go two hours away to attend a university. So, they delivered weekend programming for two years, summer intensives. And we’ve popped out a lot of teachers. And so, those cohorts still exist today. Student teachers that start together and finish together, and they all learn together.
BV: What are other priorities?
BG: Another thing that was a priority for us, it wasn’t just about graduating and giving kids a diploma. It was about closing the gap, and making sure that they’ve met grade-level expectations at grade three, grade sixth, all the grades.
What was happening, kids would come to school, get expelled, get suspended, all of these kinds of chronic things. And we said, “No”. Deal with the behavior.. In Eskasoni, they didn’t have a high school for many, many years. They would send them off Reserve into Sydney, and Sydney loved to take on students. The bus would be full, there would be two buses, kids on top of each other, going to high school.
By November, there was one bus. And you were lucky if half of it was full, because they were all suspended. But the bills were paid. And for the remainder of the year, the bills were paid.
So, we stopped that, and we said, “With the province, we’ll arrange tuition agreements. We will tell you who we’re agreeing to pay for. We want suspension rates, we want attendance rates, we want everything.
And so, we held our partners accountable. And by holding them accountable, there have been times when we’ve said, “We’re not paying, this student hasn’t been in since September.” And it certainly has gotten better that way.
BV: So, I just want to go back to something that you said about you don’t let your kids go from, say, grade one to grade two without a good grasp of grade one.
BG: Yeah, we don’t fail kids. It’s not common.
BV: We have social passing. Do you have social passing?
BG: Yes. So, we don’t hold kids back. Unless it’s absolutely the last thing to do. We do, however, have interventions in place. So, we do our reading records, things like that. If kids are not meeting expectations, you could probably put money on it that they have some sort of learning disability or whatever it is.
BV: And you find when they get up to grade 10, that they’re able to handle the heavier academic and the more — I guess, the standards kind of come in place in grade 10, right? Where people have to meet provincial standards. And they’re obviously tied to, I guess, federal standards in the sense of, if you want to go to a university in BC, you’ve got to have a certain level of provincial standard.
BG: Yeah, absolutely. And so, I don’t know that we will wait until grade 10. It just kind of works year to year. The Mi’kmaw Kina’matnewey minimum standard for students is Nova Scotia quality or better. And certainly, our graduation results and things like that are better than the average of Nova Scotia itself. We use the Nova Scotia curriculum and enhance it in different ways. We are a service delivery organization, like a school board without being a school board. It’s more of a ministry with no authority.
I, as the Executive Director, have full reign of my staff and my employees. However, it would be truly inappropriate for me to tell communities what to do. However, communities have committed as a collective to work together. So, they work together, all the nations come together, we meet monthly with our Directors of Education, monthly with our principals. My staff here at MK are more at the teacher level, providing a lot of tier one, tier two, tier three interventions at those levels in those schools. So, it kind of works for us.
Right now, we’re beyond the discussion of developing teachers and whatever. We have nurses, we’ve done nursing targets in this, we’ve done Social Work targets in this, we’ve now set our sights in Medical Sciences. So, we’re kind of intentionally developing opportunities for students to be in Medical Sciences. We’re now looking – well, we have partnerships, like with IBM Canada, where we’ve really mentored a great eight cohorts in three schools. Three schools that wanted to participate in PTECH, so Pathways to Technology Engineering Program.
And we’ve invested a lot of money and resources into this partnership. The commitment from IBM is that they will have jobs within IBM upon completion. And also, we’ve picked up a third partner, which is a local community college, that these students are doing dual crediting in high school so that when they graduate grade 12, they’ll not only receive a high school diploma, they’ll also receive a Nova Scotia Community College diploma, worth one year, and free entrance into a two-year program that will — I think what we focused on with this PPTECH group was Data Science.
BV: I’ve been watching the Legislative Assembly and some of the community people are standing up, and they’re hitting the table about what is going wrong in the education system outside of Yellowknife. And we have some indigenous politicians, but in the Department of Education, there again, is the cultural gap. We have affirmative action programs, but they’re no good if you can’t qualify for even the basics if you’re not producing them in the school system.
So, they have all these programs, and they have indigenous politicians, but when they get up against Deputy Ministers, who basically set up programs, and for them, it’s the setting up the program that’s the goal, as opposed to the outcomes. Like if the outcomes are weak, it is attributed to the failure of the population they’re serving to opt in.
BG: We’re very outcome-based, output-based, I would kind of fashion ourselves as having that sort of style of leadership. Certainly, I think for us, it’s around serving our communities. But the beauty of us is that we truly work together.
We feel and we can kind of go on rants and show displays around where we feel we’re underfunded, where we feel we have cases to bring forward with the lack of funding that we have. But one thing that this collective started doing from the very beginning was say, let’s leave the money fight to the money fighting people, and work with what we have, with the resources that we have, let’s take care of one another.
So even though Eskasoni has more than, let’s say, 60% of the population, Eskasoni in its manner, will always take less than their entitlement, so that other communities may benefit as well. And as we get more money, we do close those gaps. But we have said, we’re not letting money be our issue, the reason why we can’t do something. We’ll break the proposals, we’ll beg our partners, whatever we need to do. I like to say, “Beg, borrow, and reallocate.”
BV: So how do you weave the Mi’kmaw culture into the curriculum?
BG: I don’t know, really. It’s a way of life for us. We certainly do it with a lot of PD. We have a lot of Mi’kmaw teachers as well. So, sometimes it’s easy just to do it. Like in Eskasoni, which is the largest community with about 1,200 kids, 90% of their staff is Mi’kmaw. Right from aides, to bus drivers, to all of that. And it’s intentional sometimes, but also, the people who are in the systems who are non-Mi’kmaw have been there for 30 years.
BV: It’s the next best thing.
BG: Yeah. So, they’re part of the community, they are citizens for us. So, I can’t just say that it’s Mi’kmaq teaching Mi’kmaq, that’s not the case. But you have teachers filled with a lot of training, a lot of really good pedagogy, but I think also heart and soul, and invested in our learners.
I certainly always highlight that, because I think our non-Mi’kmaq teachers are often the ones encouraging the most language. Like it’s just — I don’t know why it’s normal here. If that sounds crazy.
BV: No, it sounds ideal, actually. What about elders, do you bring elders or people from the community into the schools?
BG: Absolutely. So, because we have jurisdiction, we make our own laws. There have been some communities who have said what a teacher is, so community people, perhaps with no Bachelor of Education or formal teaching training, we have those individuals teaching Mi’kmaq in the schools.
BV: Do they get paid the same?
BG: Yes. We accredit them and provide the training and things like that. But if anything, they should be paid more because they’re teaching a second language, right?
BV: Well, they have a commodity that’s scarce.
BG: Yeah. There’s a lot of different programs happening around here. Nesting programs where parents and elders are involved. Elders are part of the regular classroom. There’s a pilot now in one of the schools, where Mi’kmaq is – it’s an immersion program. They hired community people, just regular community people, to model language inside of the school. So, they have those assistants running around beyond the teacher assistant, beyond the teacher aide. They’re modeling language, specifically for the teachers.
BV: How is the language doing?
BG: The language is not healthy, but not critical. So, in some communities, I find those further away from the island, they are the ones that are more threatened with a low generation population of speakers. Where I live, Eskasoni, my first language is Mi’kmaq. My children speak Mi’kmaq, it’s not an unusual thing to hear young children speak Mi’kmaq. It is definitely the English influence for us, maybe you can see it, especially in the young kids.
But we did a survey one time and we said 60% of the population spoke. But anyway, the younger generations, that’s where we see the impact. We just recently passed legislation here. We wanted language legislation in this province. And we told the province that we will write it. And so, we wrote it. And they tabled it. And it came into effect on October 1st.
BV: You wrote the legislation?
BV: And was there any discussion in the assembly, and any resistance or anything?
BG: No, no abstentions, passed by all parties. Nova Scotia has committed itself to developing a strategy, to developing an action plan. But I think more for us, it has the ability to change policies within government. We want visibility to increase things like that. So, that’s still very new. I think we’ve been advocating for a number of years, COVID certainly delayed a lot of that where the government wasn’t really sitting. And yeah, so it was just like it came fast. And we wrote it in — I remember writing it on Christmas Day, through Christmas break.
BV: Do you have any plans in the works for higher education?
BG: We have funding control over post-secondary. We are in the process of developing the concept of an LNU College, where we want to deliver our programming, our certification, our diploma behind it. That’s probably about a year or two out.
BV:What did you call that?
BG: LNU College. LNU is like — I’m LNU.
BV: And what would be the purpose of that?
BG: To act as an accrediting institution with status. So, similar to a sort of a First Nation University, I guess, or Blue Quills status. But that this institution, the concept that we have, or the vision that we have currently, is that it’s doesn’t have four walls, that it is traveling, it is living within each community, that maybe there’s a central office here within MK, but that there is no boundary of where this institution can be. It could be anywhere.
BV: Does it deliver programs?
BV: And these would be in various subjects like social work, or teaching?
BG: Bachelor of Arts, to Social Work, to carpentry, to trades.
BV: How do trades fit into your curriculum?
BG: Oh, goodness, we have a really good partnership with the apprenticeship agency here in Nova Scotia. Again, we know that parents are the ultimate decision-makers in young children’s education. It is what it is, whether it be an Indian thing, whatever it is. So, we felt that parents didn’t feel like the trades were good enough, that they would merit them lower thean let’s say, an electrician, or a plumber, versus a teacher or an accountant. But quite the opposite. These electricians and plumbers are often making better money.
BV: Try to get one.
BG: So, it’s about opening up those two doors and those conversations. So, we have like try to trade opportunities for parents and their children, to come to like an apprenticeship hall to try different modules and stations. We see a lot of kids now moving towards the trades, which is really good to see.
BV: One of the things that we had from one of the MLAs talking to the community parents is that they were wary of Dene language instruction, fearing that the English instruction would suffer. Do you get that kind of sort of feedback at all?
BG: Yes and no. I think the other biggest sort of debacle for us is, right now, oh, we also have GED testing here at MK. We have the status to do that ourselves. So, we do that, and we go around the communities, and see who wants to do it. We do see a gap right now in the Math component of that. So, I don’t know if it’s a language barrier or if it’s just a curriculum content issue.
BV: I think math is a problem across the country. I’m sure of it.
BG: But we’re also doing interventions at the community level to say, “If you’re interested in your GED, come to these sessions, especially the math component one.” Because 9 times out of 10 when people are failing their GED, they’re failing the Math component. And that’s the only thing.
BV: How is attendance in your schools?
BG: Our attendance rates are pretty good. But I’ll tell you what, our attendance rates have always been like a 90% average. Since COVID, we have made new goals on reminding parents how important it is to be in the classroom. People didn’t get lazy, but there was a lot of fear in COVID times that sometimes the best decision for the family was not to send their kids to school, or missing a lot of time and a lot of instruction.
So, early on, those were goals. Our attendance rate, when we took control, was like 60%. And we brought it up to 90, doing a lot of incentives, a lot of initiatives. We’re probably down to the high 70s, low 80s. So, we need to bring that back up. And we’re already seeing that kind of fix itself now, this school year. But monitoring it closely, because we’re just able to respond better. You know what I mean?
BV: How many students?
BG: I think we have about 4,000 kids, K to 12. And then we have about a thousand in post-secondary. In my community, again, I live in like — I compare myself to China, because it’s the biggest of the nations. My daughter is graduating this year, and the number of potential graduates this year for the high school are 58. Sometimes it’s freaking crazy like that. I was like, “It’s going to be another three-hour ceremony.”
BV: Thanks for this. Will share it with the people up North.