Every three to five years or so, the Canadian settler government requires different First Nations communities across the country to assess and evaluate the quality of programs they offer to their communities. Such reports are often set out as a condition by the Federal government as part of their “accountability” process for renewing funding to First Nations communities. On August 4, 2017 our program evaluation team—Nicholas Ng-A-Fook, Ruth Kane, Tracy Crowe, and Trista Hollweck—at CRECS responded to the Kitigan Zibi Education Sector’s call for proposals to assess their educational programming. Kitigan Zibi is an Algonquin First Nations community located close to 200 kilometers north of Ottawa in the province of Quebec. This area in West Quebec is the traditional unceded territory of the Algonquin First Nations. Situated beside the town of Maniwaki and the Gatineau River watershed it is the home to 3200 community (Band) members of which 1650 live on the Kitigan Zibi reserve.
The Kitigan Zibi Education sector is responsible for all educational matters for the Kitigan Zibi community. This includes all school services at Pakinawatik (Kindergarten) and Kitigan Zibi Kikinamadinan (Elementary and Secondary) as well as the Kitigan Zibi Wazoson (Daycare), Odekan (Head Start) program, and post-secondary education. The Kitigan Zibi Cultural Center in conjunction with the Kitigan Education sector works closely and collaboratively with the Administration, the Health and Social Services, and the Police sectors to provide a comprehensive service for youth in the community. The Kitigan Zibi band has a rich tradition of prioritizing education in the community. This is evidenced in the oral traditions and history written by Stephen McGregor published in 2004 as Since Time Immemorial.
Prior to 1980 educational services were provided outside the community through the purchase of service agreements with local school boards in Maniwaki. In 1979 a group of community members created the first Education Council and the present day Kitigan Zibi Elementary and Secondary School was built. In 1991, a gymnasium was added. In 1998 a new administrative wing was built. The school is only one of two First Nations schools in Quebec to issue its own recognized High School Graduation Diploma. Their goal has always been to offer a quality education that includes First Nations language, culture and traditions. The schooling system also serves students from Barriere Lake, Lac Simon and other First Nations.
The school vision and curriculum in provincially funded schools here in Ontario, or in Quebec, still do not represent First Nations students lived experiences, nor for that matter their cultural, educational, and linguistic expectations. The Kitigan Zibi Education sector is unique and proud of the fact that it differs from the Quebec and Ontario provincial systems in various curricular and pedagogical ways. Moreover, the wider Kitigan Zibi community and its leadership remain deeply committed to First Nations control of First Nations Education. The leadership within the Kitigan Zibi educational system are proud of their many successes, and yet also acknowledge that there remain certain areas that still need improvement, like all other schools.
For over 10 years, our Anglophone Teacher Education program has had a strong professional learning partnership with the Kitigan Zibi Kikinamadinan school community. We continue to collaborate on developing different professional learning workshops that respond to their school community needs. Moreover, we have collaborated on several different Calls to Action initiatives with Elders that have addressed the curricular gaps that still exist within our Teacher Education. Several of our candidates complete a three-week teaching placement in April at the Kikinamadinan School. It was with such prior reciprocal and mutually beneficial relations in mind that we submitted our proposal to co-develop and carry out the program evaluation of their educational programing. We received news of being awarded the contract in January of 2018.
In response to the criteria put forth in the call for proposals, our team then met and collaborated with the Kitigan Zibi Education Sector to establish a steering committee with the educational administration, co-develop the scope and sequencing, and co-create and implement the different evaluation tools. Our team met weekly with the steering committee, school administration, Elders, teachers, students and community members to evaluate the following: 1) The current conditions, practices, and programs; 2) The strengths and weaknesses of current practices and programs and to determine whether they are adequate; and 3) Algonquin language instruction and culture. From the outset what our evaluation made clear is that the Kikinamadinan School remains the educational and cultural hearth of the community where its First Nations administration, teaching and support staff remain key role models for students. Moreover, there is a strong commitment toward ensuring the emotional, intellectual, physical, and spiritual success for all students across the Kitigan Zibi Education sector. As such, school administration, teachers, and the support staff have high academic expectations for all their students.
Over the past five years, dedicated funding has been provided toward enhancing human, intellectual, material, and social resources at the school. Despite, and in response to, a lack of funding and the ongoing encroachment of settler colonialism, different innovative programming initiatives have been put in place to support the revitalization of language and teachings of traditional Anishnabeg culture. Their teachers are dedicated toward ensuring that classrooms are organized and designed as 21st century learning spaces with flexible seating options, examples of student work, and well equipped with a wide range of resources appropriate for the grade level. The school has a considerable amount of technology to support learning: Smartboards are installed in all classrooms, Ipads and Chromebooks are available in all elementary classrooms, and a comprehensive school computer lab supports secondary students. A large gymnasium with a wide variety and large quantity of sports equipment supports the physical education and extracurricular sports programs.
Like other Indigenous schools across the country, developing positive relationships between the community, school administration, teachers, support staff, and students is a key educational priority. There is an acknowledgement by staff that there is a school-wide commitment to offer a wide-range of opportunities to students to capitalize on their talents beyond academics. Kitigan Zibi teachers have developed culturally responsive and relevant courses that are rich, varied, and meet the emotional, intellectual, physical, and spiritual needs of the students.
We felt that the process of the external evaluation added an unnecessary stress to the school community that complies with all other accountability measures required by the government. We questioned whether the money spent could be used in more appropriate ways to support more professional learning opportunities, language revitalization, and student programming. Moreover, how might CRECS continue to collaborate with different First Nations, Métis, and Inuit communities to help support their capacity to conduct program evaluations not only as an “accounting” to the Federal government, but rather as part of their comprehensive plan to improve First Nations educational systems for First Nations communities. In turn, how might the Federal government ensure that First Nations communities have the necessary equitable economic funding to develop and implement their educational programming that works toward ensuring the success of all students?
In response to the collective recommendations in the final report, the school administration, staff and community continue to develop and implement a comprehensive plan of action toward meeting the educational needs of the wider Kitigan Zibi community. Teachers, staff and students are incredibly proud of their school. The clear commitment to community building and relationships make the Kitigan Zibi family of schools a special place for students and staff to work, teach, learn, and flourish. Our team continues to collaborate with them on different projects. And, as team members we felt privileged to engage in rich and meaningful conversations with committed, respected, and professional educators who were and still are dedicated to their student’s learning and to their community.