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Social Affairs

First Nations Education

Tonina Simeone

Issue | The federal on-reserve First Nations education program does not offer many of the supports and structures provided by the provinces off-reserve.

Synopsis | The daily management of the on-reserve school system has been largely devolved to First Nations; however, the limited governance and administrative framework to support those schools remains a long-standing concern. Options to reform the First Nations elementary and secondary education system are currently being identified.

Timing | In December 2010, the Government of Canada, in collaboration with the Assembly of First Nations, announced the creation of a national Panel of Experts to advise on options, including legislative measures, for reforming First Nations education. Following an “engagement process,” the Panel is expected to table a final report by mid-2011.

Whereas provincial and territorial governments have developed comprehensive education systems – including education departments, elected school boards, education acts, and legal requirements for parental involvement – the federal government’s First Nations education system lacks many, if not most, of these features.

Federal Role

Constitutional authority to make laws in relation to education rests with provincial governments, while the federal government retains responsibility for elementary and secondary education on First Nations reserves. Federal authority for matters dealing with “Indians, and lands reserved for the Indians,” including education, stems from section 91(24) of the Constitution Act, 1867. In addition, the numbered treaties, concluded between 1871 and 1910, commit the federal Crown to maintaining schools and providing educational services to signatory First Nations as part of its ongoing treaty obligations.

Federal responsibility for First Nations elementary and secondary education is managed principally by the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development (DIAND) through its Elementary and Secondary Education Program. The program supports instructional services in on-reserve schools, reimbursement of tuition costs for students who attend off-reserve provincial schools, and other services such as transportation, counselling and financial assistance.

Current federal policy commits to providing educational services to First Nations “comparable to those required in provincial schools by the statutes, regulations or policies of the province in which the reserve is located.”1 Unlike the provinces, however, the federal government has not enacted specific legislation governing First Nations education, beyond the modest provisions set out in the Indian Act and various policy statements and guidelines.


According to its 2010–2011 Report on Plans and Priorities, DIAND will spend roughly $1.77 billion for educational services to approximately 120,000 elementary- and secondary-level students, with projections of $1.81 billion for 2011–2012 and $1.85 billion for 2012–2013. Education funding, excluding capital costs, is calculated using a national formula (last updated in 1996) and distributed through various funding arrangements with First Nations and the provinces. Since 1996, there has been a 2% cap on annual increases in DIAND’s education funding. The cap has been a source of tension between DIAND and First Nations, which argue that, when population increases and inflation are accounted for, current funding levels continue to result in education shortfalls.

High School Non-completion Rates for First Nations People and Non-Aboriginal People Aged 25 to 34, 2001 and 2006
High School Non-completion Rates for First Nations People and Non-Aboriginal People Aged 25 to 34 - Census 2001 - Registered Indians living on reserves: 52%; Registered Indians living off reserves: 37%; Non-Aboriginal people: 16% - Census 2006 - Registered Indians living on reserves: 51%; Registered Indians living off reserves: 29% Non-Aboriginal people: 10%
Source: Figure prepared by the Library of Parliament using data from Statistics Canada, 2001 and 2006 Census tabulations. (Under-reporting of high school completions contributed to the elevated results obtained in censuses before 2006.)


In 1972, the National Indian Brotherhood, precursor to the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), articulated its vision of education in a position paper entitled Indian Control of Indian Education. The document set out an educational philosophy affirming the principles of local control of education and parental responsibility. Soon after the document’s release, DIAND launched a process of transferring administrative responsibility for on-reserve elementary and secondary education to First Nations. Although still legally and constitutionally responsible for education, DIAND has largely limited its role to one of funding education services for the past 30 years. Currently, there are 518 band-operated or First Nations schools in Canada, with a handful still managed by DIAND.

Although the daily management of schools was transferred to First Nations, an integrated education system, similar to provincial/territorial systems, was not developed. The absence of these critical education supports is considered by some First Nations to contribute to the low education outcomes of First Nations students: in 2006, about 50% of the on-reserve population aged 25 to 34 did not have a high school leaving certificate, compared with 10% for other Canadians of the same age (see figure). In 2004, the Auditor General found that, at current rates of progress, it would take 28 years for First Nations people living on reserves to reach educational parity with the Canadian population as a whole.


In December 2008, in an effort to improve education outcomes among First Nations children, DIAND launched its Reforming First Nation Education Initiative, including two new programs aimed at supporting improvements in student literacy and numeracy as well as partnership arrangements between First Nations and provincial schools.2

Under this initiative, in December 2010 the federal government, along with the AFN, announced the creation of a national Panel of Experts to advise on options, including legislation, to improve education outcomes. The announcement followed the AFN’s June 2010 Call to Action on First Nations Education, which highlighted the need for a fundamentally new approach to education, including statutory funding arrangements and the establishment of First Nations education systems.3

Further Reading

  1. Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, Audit of the Elementary and Secondary Education Program, 1 May 2009, p. i.
  2. Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, “Backgrounder – Reforming First Nation Education Initiative.”
  3. Assembly of First Nations, “AFN National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo Launches Call to Action on First Nations Education,” News release, 9 June 2010.

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© Library of Parliament 2011