Mohawks denounce First Nations Education Act as Idle No More holds Montreal teach-in

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1555419_10153843066330657_230989319_nMontreal Idle No More organizer Melissa Mollen-Dupuis didn’t have high hopes for a big turnout to the Kahnawake demonstration against the Harper government’s First Nations Education Act (FNEA) on the morning of January 28.

“It was so cold,” she said afterward. “It was -32 with the wind, and I thought, ‘We’re gonna die, but we have to go there! It’s important.’ I figured if we were 50 people, I’d be proud.”

Mollen-Dupuis got to be much prouder than she hoped when she counted a total of 750 protestors who joined a march that began at the Mohawk Bingo on Route 138.

“I was flabbergasted,” she said. “Nothing scares Mohawks. There were 500 people on the road and 250 in school buses following us, along with trucks.”

It was the beginning of a full day of protests against the FNEA, a controversial bill that has been opposed by groups ranging from Idle No More organizers and grassroots bodies all the way to the Assembly of First Nations. Following the walk, hundreds of protestors returned to the Super Bingo for hot chocolate and coffee and then a morning teach-in with speakers discussing the effects the bill would have specifically on Mohawk Nations.

“The teach-ins are really a great way of educating ourselves when this type of education is not being offered in traditional schools,” Mollen-Dupuis said. “You’re being offered a way to exchange with people and see all the options, and do it verbally, which is our way. So I invite people to create teach-ins or to participate in them.”

Later in the day, Mollen-Dupuis, along with Idle No More’s Widia Larivière and representatives from Quebec Native Women (QNW), helped organize a second teach-in at the Université de Québec à Montréal. Kahnawake teacher Alex McComber and QNW president Viviane Michel also addressed the event.

1779101_10152055416906743_1017590766_n“The FNEA is a continuation of the colonization process that was started in the 1800s,” said Mollen-Dupuis afterward. “It’s just not in the format of residential schools: it’s worse, it comes into the community. They don’t come and get the children with policemen and churches – they come right into our own schools.”

Many activists criticize FNEA for not increasing resources in a system that is chronically underfunded. Instead, the legislation says it will address funding issues only after it has been passed into law. The FNEA will instead impose federally determined and enforced standards at all on-reserve schools. Under the law, the federal government would have the right to override band organizations and take over schools and boards if federal inspectors determine there are “problems.” (The act would not apply in Eeyou Istchee.)

The unilateral power grab is triggering enormous outrage among chiefs and Native educators, many of whom say the legislation assumes Aboriginal communities are incapable of educating their own children. It also insinuates that any failure of on-reserve schools is the fault of parents and community members, rather than the result of more systemic causes – such as underfunding or federal mismanagement.

While pressure grows to create a nation-to-nation negotiation model between First Nations and the Canadian government, said Mollen-Dupuis, this act presents the opposite: a top-down change to Aboriginal education imposed by the Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs.

“This is not speaking nation-to-nation – the consultation has been minimal. If you accept it, you get funding, and if you don’t, your funding is cut,” she said.

The protests came less than a week after the Specific Claims branch of the Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development was found by a tribunal to be “paternalistic, self-serving, arbitrary and disrespectful” in its dealings with First Nations over land claims.

Mollen-Dupuis said that every attempt to negotiate Aboriginal issues with the Harper government has been demoralizing.

“We still have to take whatever they give us. It not only undermines our self-determination, but also the pride we have,” she said. “We always have to beg to be heard. We shouldn’t always have to go into this process of having to fight for something that isn’t even up to par with non-Aboriginal Canada. They give us the crumbs, and we shouldn’t just get excited if they give us bigger crumbs.”

1622702_10152055417041743_1186257462_nAbove all, Mollen-Dupuis said, it’s important to recognize that the government is being dishonest in framing the FNEA as a measure to help improve life for First Nations people.

“Alex McComber said it best. He said that if they wanted to make our lives better, it would already have been done,” she explained. “Everything [we need] is there already to make First Nations’ lives better. So why is our education and health-care underfunded? [These federal government initiatives aren’t] there to help us – they’re designed to help their economy.”

“We’re the manpower, the people who are going to work on the trucks and in the mines,” she said. “They can’t ignore the youngest population. You’ve seen it with the tar-sands – the people driving the trucks are often First Nations people. We have no other options: nothing else has been offered or permitted to go on in our economy, except extraction. So people are being offered big jobs with big money, and they take it, even if it’s against their traditional values.”

It was a bizarre experience, she said, to be visiting the tar-sands this summer with other Idle No More protestors and see drivers of the enormous trucks waving and honking their support.

“We were protesting against their livelihood! But if I was somebody from First Nations in this territory and I had three kids and no other options, maybe I’d be in that truck too, instead of walking down the road with the people protesting.”

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