From the Ground Up: Developing an Indigenous Education System– Research Considerations


  • Shane Henry University of Saskatchewan


This research explores sustainability practices and drivers in Aboriginal post-secondary education places of learning and identifies how their capacity for engagement in culturally relevant community-based conservation and environmental decision-making may be advanced through a national sustainability network.  The relationship between sustainability and Indigenous knowledges comprise an important part of the research. A mixed method approach is used to gain quantitative and qualitative data from a survey and interview process.  Results will be reported in a series of linked manuscripts suitable for publication.

This research seeks to advance community-identified educational aspirations and involves collaboration between Indigenous communities and Indigenous organizations (Saskatoon Tribal Council, MFNERC, MK, STC), a non-Indigenous organization (Saskatchewan Educational Research Unit) (SELU) including academic and non-academic researchers.  It builds on recent research sponsored by the government of Saskatchewan, the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations and the Metis Nation of Saskatchewan (Pelletier, Cottrell, Hardie, 2013; Joint Taskforce, 2013) and current research via massive community consultations sponsored by STC (Henry, Cottrell, Pelletier, in progress). Recent reports (JTF, 2013; TRC, 2015) highlight improving educational outcomes and employment opportunities for Indigenous peoples underscores the critical importance of appropriate governance structures to ensure Indigenous peoples benefit more equitably from education. My work with STC involves community consultations regarding school governance, finance, management, and administration to inform the Tribal Council’s deliberations on the creation and implementation of an effective education system.

I propose merging research streams and established data to advance them explicitly for on-reserve education as they impact members of STC First Nations.  STC’s main catchment area caters to approximately 2000 STC members living and attending school on-reserve.  In addition to the on-reserve populous, Saskatoon constitutes a sizable percentage of the larger Indigenous population which is currently the fastest -growing demographic within the city’s schools. Despite recent progress, these children still benefit the least from publicly funded education yet their on-reserve counter-parts still remain enmeshed in a regime that fastidiously adheres to federal and provincial policy while undermining access to and success within a First Nations controlled education system. Consequently, responding to the unique needs to improve Indigenous educational outcomes and economic opportunities represents one of the most compelling concerns of STC and member communities. Post Indian Act Era education systems constitutes the greatest challenge and opportunity currently facing education in the province’s multi(intra)-jurisdictional landscape.

Local, national and international research highlights the importance of “shared governance” or “co-governance” structures for Indigenous peoples to be “viable and accountable decision makers in the planning and implementation of programs designed for excellence in education” (FRMWGE, 2002, p.2).  Research by the JTF identified post-colonial theory and Ermine’s (2009) conception of “ethical space” as frameworks for partnerships to foster greater Indigenous involvement in, and control over, education. Creating more invitational and culturally responsive schools will also ensure the recognition of Indigenous people’ worldviews, social structures, governance, and pedagogy as a legitimate foundation upon which to construct new meanings or knowledge alongside Western traditions and ways of knowing. Researchers are in agreement that this shift offers the potential to both improve educational outcomes for Indigenous students and also provide significant epistemological benefits for non-Aboriginal learners. However research has also identified the particular challenges of educational governance issues in provincial-federal-First Nations context, given the jurisdictional complexity pertaining to First Nations education governance/finance/administration/management of on-reserve education. For that reason this research is critical to education governance and organizational development unique to STC and member First Nations.

Qualitative methods respecting Indigenous approaches to knowledge formation and the principles of community-engaged ethical research have informed this project to date (Kovach, 2009). Data collection for the study was informed by the following four research questions: 1.What governance structures are currently in place at the school/community? 2. How do these arrangements impact student achievement/outcomes? 3. How might (existing) governance mechanisms be modified to support more equitable educational outcomes for Indigenous students? 4. How might these governance mechanisms be modified to support greater Indian Control of Indian Education? 5. What education system do you envision that meets the unique needs of First Nations while pursuing excellence?  Data collection methods included town-halls, semi-structured individual and focus group interviews with the range of stakeholders impacted by school governance respecting Indigenous peoples within provincial and First Nations schools. These included First Nation Parents; First Nation students; STC Chiefs & Councillors; STC education personnel; Board members of the SPSD and GSCSD; Senior Administration of SPSD and GSCSD; Board and senior administration from Horizon and Prairie Valley SDs; School Community Council members from First Nations.

Given the close causal connection between education, employment, health, and other indices of well-being for Indigenous groups in Canada and elsewhere there is compelling evidence that schooling is a vital point of intervention. Among the anticipated outcomes of the research are: to increase knowledge and awareness of Indigenous issues specifically to improve the organization of First Nations education; and increase the number of highly qualified Aboriginal researchers with social sciences expertise related to educational issues; to augment and expand current research partnerships with the academic, public and private sectors that co-create knowledge to address pressing educational and social issues; to enhance the capacity for Aboriginal communities to engage in and benefit from research; and to create space for awareness, on-going  dialogue and relationship-building, and integration of Indigenous and non-Indigenous research paradigms. Additionally the research has capacity to mediate disparities in educational attainment between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students in Saskatchewan which is critical for cross-cultural harmony, social cohesion, labor market participation, and economic sustainability. In addition to advancing an unequivocally moral imperative, this also constitutes an extremely sound public investment. Saskatchewan has long been a pioneer in developing innovative programs for Indigenous people at the elementary, secondary and post-secondary levels, often through strategic partnerships between universities, school divisions the Ministry of Education and Indigenous groups.  By exploring and refining governance, management, administration, and finance of on-reserve education this research seeks to enhance the STC’s, the provincial and federal government’s capacity to forge creative solutions to local challenges which increasingly have global resonance.