From a First Nation Perspective

  The past, where we are now and where we need to go

Marilyn Buffalo

Where do we begin?

For starters, we acknowledge our Creator before we deliberate on treaty right to education and past prophetic words of our ancestor Chief Poundmaker:

We all know the story about the man who sat by the trail too long, and then it grew over, and he could never find his way again. We can never forget what has happened, but we cannot go back. Nor can we just sit beside the trail.

—Chief Poundmaker

We encourage teachers and students to learn from Elders, to study the current crisis in First Nations education and to promote and support Treaty Six educators for betterment of Treaty Six children, youth and families.

Know our past

On August 22, 1876, Chief Poundmaker spoke about grandchildren facing poverty, diseases and being confined to small reserves where a foreign educational system focused on teaching agricultural skills.

We have listened carefully to your words and we are glad that the White Mother is so concerned for us. We have discussed it at length in our councils. 

We know that if the day comes that there are not enough buffalo to feed us, we will have to grow food from the ground. We will need help for we know nothing of such things. Such a great change in our lives will not be easy. What will we do at first for food and clothing? If our crops fail, as they do some years, we will need more help than has been offered here. 

We think, not just of ourselves but of our children and their children. We want to make sure that life will be as good for them as it will be for your children. I hope you understand me. My voice is the voice of my people.

Her Majesty’s commissioners promised schools to Treaty Six chiefs and headmen:

And further, Her Majesty agrees to maintain schools for instruction in such reserves hereby made as to Her Government of the Dominion of Canada may seem advisable, whenever the Indians of the reserve shall desire it.

During treaty negotiations, Lieutenant-Governor Morris made additional promises:

You will remember the promises which I have already made; I said you will get seed; you need not concern yourselves so much about what your grand-children are going to eat; your children will be taught, and they will be as well able to care of themselves as the whites around them.

During treaty talks, government representatives did not reveal Indian Act legislation and partnerships with churches to build residential schools: Ermineskin Residential School, Blue Quills School and Edmonton Residential School (now Chief Poundmaker Treatment Centre). The truth is that for decades, thousands of Treaty Six First Nation children suffered in overcrowded quarters. They were malnourished, severely punished for speaking their own language, sexually molested, physically tortured, and denied rights to their culture and ceremonies. 

In 1972, Treaty Six Elder Stanley Redcrow and 500 protesters from Blue Quills School sent a delegation to Ottawa to meet the Honourable Jean Chrétien, then minister of Indian Affairs, for a bilateral (nation to nation) agreement for instruction of indigenous language and cultural studies, and to obtain authority to hire qualified staff. The sit-in sparked a national chain of events and resulted in a First Nations education policy, entitled Indian Control of Indian Education. The policy was endorsed by the federal government and the National Indian Brotherhood.

The current education crisis

Although Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized for residential school abuses on June 11, 2008, educational and social problems persist. The shameful legacy of multigenerational trauma continues because Treaty Six First Nation education authorities lack sustainable funding.

Today, Canada’s First Nation schools operate under a 20-year-old band-operated formula (BOF), which causes major financial shortages and an inability to plan long-term for population growth, cost-of-living increases and economic circumstances. In 1996, a 2 per cent federal funding cap caused further financial difficulties. Treaty Six First Nation schools operate with archaic tuition agreements written in unacceptable policy language and negotiated without free, prior, and informed consent of First Nation chiefs, parents and educators.

Treaty Six First Nation schools cannot develop culturally appropriate programs to ensure student success in First Nation schools and provincial schools because funding is inadequate; sufficient resources are not provided for student counselling and home–school liaison; services for Elders and traditional support are nonexistent; assistance is not provided for students’ daily and monthly living expenses, including daycare or babysitting costs for students with children, school supplies, and transportation; and administrative services, such as student tracking and student retention strategies, are lacking.

Future strategic planning

Strategic planning is required in the following areas:

Indigenous languages and culture—In order to remedy past wrongs, the Government of Canada must fund Treaty Six First Nation school authorities, colleges and schools to develop Cree, Nakota and Dene language and cultural immersion programs and curriculum resources with Elder and community input.

Student data systems—Treaty Six First Nation school authorities, colleges and schools need to design and implement a student data system that tracks student success in order to obtain statistical data analysis.

Students with special needs—Treaty Six First Nation school authorities must assess why many Treaty Six children are labelled as special needs by provincial school authorities. There must be a review of special needs and individual education plans and special needs funding. Treaty Six must develop a strategy to assist children and youth with special needs and their families.

Funding cap—The federal government must immediately abolish the 2 per cent cap. (Indian and Northern Affairs Canada [INAC] provides funding for Aboriginal students through its Post-Secondary Student Support Program (PSSSP). The program has a 2 per cent cap on annual funding increases.)

Funding discrepancy—The federal government must recognize that a funding discrepancy exists in tuition funding between Treaty Six First Nation schools and provincial schools. The Treaty Six First Nation’s tuition formula must be updated to reflect real costs. 

Alberta curriculum—The Alberta government curriculum guidelines and teaching materials are culturally inappropriate for First Nation children and youth. Treaty Six Elders, chiefs, parents and educators must be consulted and treated as equal partners who provide input into curriculum development.

Teacher salaries—First Nation school authorities’ teacher salaries and benefits must be brought on par with provincial teachers.


We, the direct descendents of our ancestors, continue to uphold the true spirit and intent of our treaty right to quality education, as taught by Elders through oral and traditional teachings. We will not just sit beside the trail, nor will we sacrifice another generation. It is time for concrete action for positive implementation of our treaty right to quality education.

Marilyn Buffalo was born and raised in Samson Cree Nation and is the granddaughter of John Tootoosis and Yellow Mud Blanket, brother of Chief Poundmaker. She served as an Advisor on Native Affairs to the University of Alberta (1975–79), founded the School of Native Studies and Native Student Services, and laid foundations for Aboriginal programming on campus. Buffalo served as president of the Native Women Association of Canada (1997–2000)


Assembly of First Nations. 2006. “Assembly of First Nations Calls on Government of Canada to Address First Nation Education Crisis.” News release. April 4.

———. Indian Residential Schools Unit. (accessed April 8, 2009).

Goodwill, J., and N. Sluman. 1984. John Tootoosis. Winnipeg, Man.: Pemmican.

Indian and Northern Affairs Canada. Resolution Sector. (accessed April 8, 2009).

———. Special Education Program, Evaluation, Performance Measurement and Review Branch Audit and Evaluation Sector. 2007. Formative Evaluation of the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada. Ottawa, Ont.: Author.

National Indian Brotherhood. 1972. Indian Control of Indian Education. Ottawa, Ont.: Author.

Saskatchewan Files. “The Treaties at Forts Carlton and Pitt, Number Six.” (accessed April 8, 2009).

Saskatchewan Indian. 1972. Interview with Stanley Redcrow. Available at (accessed April 8, 2009).