Students and politicians plead for fair treatment.
In light of the growing noise of insufficient and unfair funding for Aboriginal education, a consortium of Aboriginal leaders launched a day of protest in the heart of Edmonton's downtown.
Drum music echoed through Edmonton's Churchill Square, directly across from City Hall. Hundreds of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people readied themselves with signs, and chants. Chiefs from Treaty 6, 7, and 8, along with other leaders, including the National Chief Phil Fontaine prepared the masses to make a difference.
"This is the mark of a new beginning of a spirit of hope, for prosperity, and quality education for our children and their children," said Wayne Moonias, the Grand Chief of Treaty 6.
"Today is a beginning. Today we send a message to Canada, to the government of Canada, to the Premier of Alberta, to the government of Alberta that we will not stand aside anymore," exclaimed George Calliou, who MC'd the event.
The day before the march, chiefs and Elders gathered for a pipe ceremony and prepared for the next day. With the election season hustle and bustle well underway, it is feared that Aboriginal concerns will either be swept aside or left behind. For First Nations, a peaceful parade with a political agenda seemed a surefire way to make enough noise to be mentioned in the same breath as "Canada's financial crisis" or "Canada's role on the world stage."
"We not only have a First Nation education crisis, there's also a housing crisis. We have poor access to health care, quality health care. We have approximately 100 communities that operate with a poor water crisis," explained Fontaine. "This crisis doesn't have to be as it is. The lives of our communities should be better, and so we call on all governments, not just the federal governments to do alike for all peoples, including our peoples."
"I encourage you to hold the next federal government accountable by reminding them repeatedly that they have a responsibility to honour the spirit and the intent of the treaty 6 by implementing, promoting and protecting treaty rights to quality education," Moonias urged.
The crowd that had reached into the hundreds formed behind the line of chiefs and began their march through downtown. Edmonton police diverted traffic and onlookers curiously watched as the discontented crowd chanted, held up signs, and waved their banners proudly. Signs that read " First Nation Education" and "Education is a treaty right," let Alberta's capital city know that change was demanded.
Some signs made reference to a "28-year gap." In 2005, the Auditor General of Canada revealed that it would take 28 years for the Native population to attain the same educational level as the entire Canadian population.
Even school children stood tall amidst the masses, pleading for change. One little girl, in the pre-march speeches fiercely demanded, "we need First Nation education now!" to a chorus of cheers.
A group of thirty students from Kisipatnahk Community School, located in the hotbed of violence that is Hobbema, attended the march.
"I believe it was a learning experience for our students," said Lillian Gadwa-Crier, who organized the field trip. "Most of our young students don't have the knowledge or information about rights, education rights, or treaty rights. This is one way of encourging them to grow and find the importance of educational rights."
Gadwa-Crier claims that because the school receives the minuscule funding that it does, many students choose to go elsewhere.
"If they were to support the band schools totally, the school would be absolutely bountiful," expressed Gadwa-Crier, who added that many of the children who do attend the school suffer because of the lack of support received for what is there.
Much like Kisipatnahk, most Aboriginal schools face less funding when compared to the rest of Canada. On average, it is reported that Aboriginal schools receive 40 to 50 per cent less than provincial schools. Also, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) imposed a two per cent cap on funding despite the fact that the Aboriginal population is booming at a much higher rate.
While initially most of the children were excited at the prospect of an educational march, Gadwa-Crier said some of her students found the experience overwhelming at times.
"I had a little journal activity for them to do the following day and I asked them what they thought about the march and how they felt. Some of the students said they were a little scared as they were walking and I think that was because they had never participated in anything as grand as this," explained Gadwa-Crier, adding that her students had participated hoping it would lead to a better education and a job.
After peacefully invading the river-city's downtown streets, the march led to Canada Place, where INAC's office is located. Following a brief discussion with Canada Place security, the drums sounded once again, and the respected voices of chiefs and Elders resonated through the government building.
"These are difficult times, emotional times, especially in light of the apology on residential schools. We feel that there was sincerity in the words, but unfortunately, we have not seen action yet," said Calliou. Fontaine explained to the crowd, that the educational inequality leads to dangerous and sad issues.
"We have some of the highest suicide rates in the world. Too many of our people are incarcerated. We assessed 27,000 First Nation children in state care," Fontaine stressed. "I can't come up with a more compelling cry for fair treatment than that. Children should not be buried. The lives of our children shouldn't be so bad that it causes them to take their lives. Something needs to be done--something needs to be done urgently."
While the effects of the march can never be measured in concrete terms, many of the leaders echoed that it should not stop at one march.
"This was a peaceful walk. A peaceful walk sends a very important message to Canada," said Fontaine, also saying that Aboriginals need think carefully in terms of what other measures need to be taken to ensure fair treatment.
One Elder expressed that there should be many movements, on many different levels to ensure that the plight of Aboriginals is not left behind. Fontaine agreed, and also noted to the crowd that he was encouraged by what took place in Edmonton on Sept. 24.
"What you've done here today is so impressive and uplifting. It gave me so much hope that the desperation that is experienced by too much of our people will end. And it will end because of you."
BY THOMAS J BRUNER
Sweetgrass Staff Writer
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|Author:||Bruner, Thomas J.|
|Date:||Oct 1, 2008|
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