“Over the years, each of the authorities worked in isolation trying to improve education services in their own communities,” said the committee’s superintendent, Brian Wildcat.
“What we’re hoping, and what we’ve benefited already by working together, is by bringing all of our resources together — financial resources, physical resources, intellectual resources — that we will get some benefit from that.”
He said the collaboration will also give the First Nations more leverage when negotiating for funds with the provincial and federal governments, noting they have a “long history of being underfunded.”
He added that the move will allow schools to focus more on developing programs specific to the needs of the community. The schools will teach Indigenous knowledge and support the preservation and revitalization of Cree language, culture, natural laws and protocols.
“Our focus will be to improve academic achievement, build culture and language programming, increase local history and locally developed courses, education on treaty rights and on residential schools, that type of stuff,” he said.
“Those are the things we’ll be able to do now because we have the resources.”
The commission’s board chair Nina Makinaw said schools in Ermineskin are already implementing land-based learning, with students picking sweetgrass and sage.
Makinaw said the committee plans to write its own curriculum, which will gradually take over from the Alberta curriculum currently taught in the 11 schools.
“We can write the curriculum here in Maskwacis. We have 1,300 post-secondary graduates here. We have eight lawyers. So it is possible,” she said.
Makinaw said the added focus on Cree learning is already changing the way students see themselves and their education.
“A lot of them are proud, once they realize who they are — that they’re Cree, and that these are their songs, these are their traditions, this is how we used to live. It just instills pride in them,” she said.
Plans to create the new school authority have been in the works for years. The commission has held 32 consultations over the last two years to seek input from parents, students, community leaders and elders.
According to the commission, about 1,500 community members attended consultations and more than 1,300 completed surveys. The surveys found 92 per cent support for the creation of a Maskwacis-specific education authority.
Samson Cree Nation Chief Vernon Saddleback said more than 40 per cent of the kids on his First Nation weren’t attending school when he joined its council several years ago. He worked to bring those numbers down and said the new committee could make a big change.
“We have one job as parents, and it’s to make our kids better than us,” he said. “And that’s what we’re doing here today.”
Montana Chief Leonard Standing on the Road said Friday’s announcement was “a very proud moment for all of us as a community, all four nations.”
Federal Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott, who was in Maskwacis to make the announcement, said the agreement will be looked at by First Nations across the country as a model.
She said First Nations in Nova Scotia and Manitoba saw significant increases in grades and graduation rates after implementing similar collaborative agreements.
“This essentially is an enactment of what people have been asking for for decades. And that’s First Nations control of First Nations education,” Philpott said.
The Government of Canada will also provide more funds to Maskwacis schools as part of the agreement.
Before the new commission was formed, about 65 per cent of the funds Maskwacis schools received from the government were secured each year, while the other 35 per cent were contingent on proposal-driven grants.
Philpott said it’s likely that few Canadians understand the funding models for schools on reserves, where they are heavily reliant on grants and already receive less funding than provincial schools.
“Every time a school wanted to develop a new program they had to put in more proposals and an overwhelming volume of reports that weren’t necessarily reports that mattered in terms of the outcomes and the success of students,” Philpott said. “So this is a complete transformation in that regard.”
The new commission will take over Maskwacis schools in September.
Kevin Maimann is an Edmonton-based reporter covering education and marijuana legalization. Follow him on Twitter: @TheMaimann