What can the past teach us about First Nations’ education?

This was originally posted on Teaching the Past.

Edited digital image from Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-3924 (b&w film copy neg.) Lithograph of Stodart & Currier, N.Y. published by B.O. Tyler, [1834 or 1835]. See Currier & Ives : a catalogue raisonné / compiled by Gale Research. Detroit, MI : Gale Research, c1983, no. 1571. http://lcweb2.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/i?pp/PPALL:@field(NUMBER+@band(cph+3a07365))

Dartmouth Hall

The Canadian press has recently been replete with stories and op-ed pieces covering the National Panel on First Nation Elementary and Secondary Education, which this month wrapped up a series of roundtable discussions.  The panel, created through a partnership between the Canadian federal government and the Assembly of First Nations, has a mandate to develop options and to suggest legislation for improving on-reserve education across the country.

Inequitable funding for band-operated schools in many First Nations communities has created a crisis.  Despite education being a treaty right for many First Nations, the panel notes that “fewer than half of First Nation youth graduate from high school, compared to close to 80 per cent of other Canadian children, and some 70 per cent do not have a post secondary degree or diploma.”

As an historian of the eighteenth century studying Aboriginal engagement with European forms of higher education, these numbers startled me. In much of my research these figures are reversed.

In both Quebec and Ontario, First Nation communities were some of the first to develop community-based schools.  Even before European settlers had developed schools in many of their communities, Huron-Wendat, Abenaki, and Mohawk people were instructing their youth in formalized school settings. Although this subject is deeply imbedded in Canada’s colonial history, examining First Nation interaction with European forms of education in the period before residential schools helps us to better understand the challenges faced by communities in determining how to educate their youth.

Eighteenth-century First Nations people, like their European neighbours, saw education as a useful tool to maintain their communities as European populations increased around them. In Jeune-Lorette, a Huron-Wendat village near Quebec City, the community maintained many aspects of their language and culture as French farms expanded around them. They also achieved a literacy rate in French of about 20% by the 1790s. This was average for francophone communities in the St. Lawrence Valley at the time, but it was significantly higher than the literacy rate for the French farmers living around the Huron-Wendat village (about 3%).

Over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Jesuits heavily influenced this community. As French Jesuit influence diminished following the British conquest of New France, community-centred education became a prominent part of Jeune-Lorette’s identity. Unlike neighbouring francophone communities, who did not develop schools until the late-1820s and 1830s, the Huron-Wendat established a community-run day school taught by a member of their community. The Abenaki at Odenak did so as well a few years later.

These two schools had high attendance rates.  Mathieu Chaurette’s research on First Nation day schools along the St. Lawrence River during this period demonstrates that at Jeune-Lorette, almost all of the community’s children attended school at one point or another during the 1790s and early 1800s. The school also attracted students from neighbouring Mi’kmaq, Wulstukwuik, Abenaki, Haudenosaunee and Algonquin communities. Fewer students attended the school at Odenak (attendance was between 20% and 30%). Importantly, however, this rate of attendance was similar to the proportion of francophone children who attended school at the time.

Access to higher education was important in establishing both of these schools. The teachers at these schools were from the community and had attended Dartmouth College in the 1770s and 1780s. The teacher at Odenak, Francois Annance, attended Dartmouth for a number of years but did not finish his studies before returning to his community. We know much more about the teacher at Jeune-Lorette, Sawantanan (Louis Vincent, Dartmouth class of 1781). He was one of the few Aboriginal people to graduate from a colonial college during the eighteenth century. In addition to his native Huron-Wendat tongue, he was fluent in French, English, Mohawk and Wabanaki languages. Before returning to Jeune-Lorette he also taught school among the Mohawk on the Bay of Quinte (modern-day Tyendinaga). Annance and Sawantanan were two of over forty students from the St. Lawrence Valley who attended Dartmouth College, or its predecessor, Moor’s Indian Charity School, between 1770 and 1850.

Understanding how these communities, and others, engaged with European forms of education before the creation of residential schools is critical to reforming structures of schooling in First Nation communities. Reserve schools did not just follow residential schools; they also preceded the residential school system. Observing how communities chose to engage with these structures before education was imposed on them is instructive in providing models for successful forms of education.

Studying First Nation education during this crucial period in Canada’s colonial past teaches us lessons about the role of government and outside organizations (churches in the past, big business today) in shaping education policies in First Nation communities. We should be wary of outsiders wishing to directly influence the direction and nature of First Nation education. More often than nought, outsider input into First Nations education has failed.

Sometimes this failure has been for the good. In Jeune-Lorette, Sawantanan ignored Dartmouth’s goals of promoting Protestantism and “civilization.” Instead of introducing a curriculum that sought to completely assimilate his community to the culture of their New England neighbours, Sawantanan began selectively teaching concrete skills – such as literacy in both French and English – that allowed his community to reinforce its claim to territory around Quebec City. At the same time as the Huron-Wendat established their school, the community began petitioning for long-held rights to the seigneury of Sillery and for access to traditional resources. Education was seen as a tool that could benefit the community, but it sought to achieve goals that were far outside of Dartmouth College’s desired outcomes.

More commonly, though, influence from government and other outsider organizations have hindered First Nations communities. Chaurette’s work has demonstrated that education can be divisive and that community initiatives could be smothered or co-opted by political and religious authorities. For the powers at the time (the Catholic church and colonial state), education had to be controlled in an attempt to make sovereign First Nations subject to European control. The impact of this sort of interference was magnified and expanded as residential schools became more prominent through the nineteenth century.

The history of these schools also illustrates that education is not a panacea solution to all social problems. As much as education could be used as a tool for self-governance and greater autonomy, it also led to considerable cultural erosion. As Chaurette has emphasized, the curriculum in these schools shared many similarities with their French neighbours. French, and sometimes even English, was often the language of instruction. These schools fuelled processes of linguistic and cultural change that had begun with the arrival of Jesuit missionaries at the beginning of the 17th century.

Education is not neutral, nor is it universally beneficial or corrosive. It is important to understand the complex relationship many First Nations have had with non-indigenous systems of education. “Schools used to be used as weapons,” Manitoba Treaty Commissioner James Wilson recently told the Montreal Gazette, “If schools are seen in any way as a means of assimilation, communities will opt out.”

Understanding the early history of how some First Nation communities opted into European structures of education before residential schools is important. It teaches us about the nuances of Aboriginal engagement with European forms of education.  It also demonstrates the creative strategies that communities used when confronted with European colonialism, and the strengths and weaknesses of the approaches they took.

The National Panel on First Nation Elementary and Secondary Education seeks only to make suggestions, rather than impose “solutions,” leaving it up to First Nations’ governance structures to determine what types of education will best serve their communities. Scott Haldane, the panel’s chair, told the Globe and Mail that “[w]hat we’re hoping is that perhaps we can make some recommendations that would allow some other regions of the country to develop their own institutions that make sense for them.”

This is what occurred at the end of the eighteenth century in Jeune-Lorette and Odenak. First Nation communities selectively embraced European-style schooling in an effort to provide stability in the face of a rapidly changing colonial environment.  European forms of education were modified by the community to meet their specific needs.

For more on the challenges and proposed solutions currently facing First Nation communities:

For more on First Nation engagement with European-style education during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries see:


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2 thoughts on “What can the past teach us about First Nations’ education?

  1. David Zylberberg

    This is a good article with some very interesting insights into the Saint Lawrence Lowlands in the 18th century. I am wondering though what the geographic breakdown is of where Aboriginal students are finishing secondary school and where they are not. This is probably also relevant for discussions of the 18th century. Jeune-Leurette was situated near Quebec, in an area of constant economic and social contact with French farmers. It had all-season roads connecting it to Quebec by 1780 and has currently become an inner suburb of a fairly large city. I am assuming that this article is partly in response to the current discussions about Atawapiskat, which is an isolated fly-in reserve that currently only has winter roads (and warmer winters threaten these) and in which non-Cree contact is mass media or outsiders paid to provide social services. Having an all-season road and a real economy there are dependent upon how the Ring of Fire, a few hundred kilometres west of there, is developed. These are very different places and I wonder how the James Bay Cree were dealing with European education in the 1780s. At some point, population density of surrounding regions, location and economic opportunities are important in understanding why members of aboriginal communities have reacted differently to education in the 18th and 21st century.

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