In her orange cotton dress adorned with rows of tinkling metal cones, Grade 1 student Sadie Turner skips to the centre of a large open classroom at Princess Anne PS to perform an Ojibwe “jingle dress” dance for visiting students, teachers and parents. With a student-built wigwam as a backdrop, the six-year-old rhythmically beats a drum, sings a “water song” and displays the nimble footwork she has perfected since the age of two.

Moments later, after a kindergarten chorus of “welcome to our coolest wigwam” to the guests, Grade 8 students Alex Nootchtai and Zachary Tyson explain the difference between a wigwam (made from willow or cedar saplings and an integral part of Ojibwe culture) and a teepee (made from buffalo hide).

The performances, organized by First Nation and non-First Nation teachers at the school, were held over a three-week period to explain Aboriginal culture and traditions to the Princess Anne community in an informal, fun way — a supplement to Ojibwe language and Native studies, an Aboriginal-infused kindergarten and a weekly drumming class (with community partners) offered by the downtown Sudbury school through the Rainbow DSB.

Scenes like the one at Princess Anne are playing out across Ontario, which has embarked on a series of initiatives to reverse, as in other provinces, a long history of failure in First Nation, Métis and Inuit (FNMI) education.

But the bright spots — like those at Rainbow and other public boards that work with FNMI communities — still fall short of the transformational change advocates say is needed to close a chronic achievement gap and high dropout rate for FNMI students.

“Ontario is nibbling around the edges,” says Harvey McCue, an Ottawa consultant and nationally recognized commentator on First Nations education, and among those demanding system-level reforms. “The province needs to acknowledge that First Nations kids encounter serious difficulties in the provincial schools,” he adds, citing a lack of student preparation, incidents of racism and insufficient teacher preparation. “All three things are within the responsibility of the provincial government.”

On-reserve First Nation education, a federal responsibility, was the focus of a federal panel that in 2012 recommended replacing the current patchwork of underfunded programs with a comprehensive system of needs-based financial commitments, adequate infrastructure and reciprocal accountability between First Nation schools and
education organizations. Reviewing the picture
nationally, the panel concluded “education
outcomes for First Nation students attending
schools in provincial systems are not
substantially better than those attending
First Nation schools.”

First Nation, Métis and Inuit students need to see themselves represented in the curriculum.

Effective and successful models

In Ontario, 72.4 per cent of the province’s 46,000-plus First Nation students (on- and off-reserve) attend provincially funded schools, as do more than 18,000 Métis and 700 Inuit. According to the 2006 Census, 37.6 per cent of Ontario FNMI aged 15 and older had less than a high school education compared to only 22 per cent of non-FNMI. As well, Aboriginal youth in the province were three times less likely than their peers to earn a university degree.

Inconsistent local efforts, a lack of data, high rates of family mobility and poverty, an absence of provincial mandates, incidents of racism and lingering stereotypes about Aboriginal learners are among multiple barriers to major change.

Still, there are successful models and examples of “exceptional leadership” by schools and Aboriginal organizations to improve the academic experience of Aboriginal learners, says Scott Haldane, president and CEO of YMCA Canada and past chair of the National Panel on First Nation Elementary and Secondary Education for Students Living On-Reserve. The panel was set up by the federal government and the Assembly of First Nations to seek remedies to close the achievement gap between First Nations and non-Aboriginal students. “The problem is you can’t build a system on exceptional leadership,” he says. “How do you build a system that actually tries to replicate those pockets of excellence? It has to be based on a child’s right to equality of education.”

In Ontario, recent measures to address chronic underachievement date to 2007 when the Ministry of Education introduced a First Nation, Métis and Inuit Policy Framework that, with current funding of $46.2 million this year, encourages school boards to promote student self-identification as a starting point to gather data, add Native language and Native studies courses, develop other curriculum resources, and hire Aboriginal teachers and support workers.

Making “great progress”

When asked for a progress report on the framework, the Ministry responded that, along with growth in student enrolment in Native culture and language classes, the Ministry cites “great progress” in relations between boards and Aboriginal organizations, noting 72 of 76 boards and authorities have self-identification policies. An update on the framework, along with baseline achievement data on FNMI students, was to be released this fall but as of press time, the Ministry has indicated that a publication date “has not been determined.”

Many school boards (and their Aboriginal advisory councils) have been reluctant to share information — even with their own schools — on the success of Aboriginal students, fearing stigmatization. For reasons not of their making, some students arrive at school a year or so behind their peers or speak idiomatic English, putting them at risk of being slotted into non-academic courses.

Among those eager to see the provincial data is Métis Nation of Ontario President and CEO Gary Lipinski. “I think we will see two patterns,” he predicts. “There is a group of [Métis] students who are excelling beyond everyone’s imagination, but there is another group who, because of lack of supports and other issues, are not getting to the finish line of Grade 12.”

Meanwhile, in consultation with Aboriginal representatives, the Ontario College of Teachers (OCT) has revised and expanded offerings of 21 Aboriginal-focused additional qualifications and recommended to government new courses for teaching Michif and Inuktitut languages (OCT is developing courses in Cayuga, Cree, Delaware/Lenape, Mohawk, Ojibwe, Oji-Cree and Oneida). A new College initiative requires that all Additional Qualification courses — more than 41,000 teachers took them in 2011 — include content and experiences related to FNMI perspectives and knowledge. Last year, the College supported First Nation education organizations in delivering Additional Qualification courses.

For their part, Ontario faculties of education are expanding efforts to embed Aboriginal content in the curriculum for all teacher candidates — part of a national commitment by deans of education on indigenous education.

The most promising examples break from past practices. School officials are making fresh efforts to listen, ask and act.

Success hinges on control

Despite a proliferation of initiatives, results to date are uneven. “There’s been a significant level of progress,” observes Pamela Toulouse, a Laurentian University associate professor in education and author of Achieving Aboriginal Student Success. “But there is a lot of work that needs to be done to ensure that all First Nation, Métis and Inuit have access to education opportunities, like all students.”

Professor Toulouse, an Anishnaabe from Sagamok First Nation who has advised provincial and national panels on education reform, warns: “As long as there are First Nation, Métis and Inuit students who don’t see themselves represented in the curriculum, so long as we have many who are dropping out and see their own learning styles and dialects are not being valued in schools, so long as that is happening, it is not equitable at all.”

With little evidence of a system-wide change, First Nations leaders are intensifying calls for greater control over the education of students on- and off-reserve. “The success of our students hinges on First Nation control over the education of our children,” says Regional Chief Stan Beardy, head of the 133-member Chiefs of Ontario, which issued a report last year calling for greater First Nation authority over funding, programs and services to put indigenous learners on an equal footing with other learners.

Last June, the Chiefs of Ontario called on the province to toughen its FNMI framework that only suggests school boards “strive to” make improvements. His organization wants increased support for Aboriginal-focused curriculum content, language programs and hiring practices as well as accountability for school board spending of ministry funds on Aboriginal education. “Success stories do abound related to student achievement,” says Beardy. “But the success of First Nations in the provincial system seems to be very much related to good work and relationships between public school boards and First Nation communities.”

The most promising examples are those that break from past practices. Instead of ignoring the problem, school officials say they are making fresh efforts to listen, ask and act. “It is one thing to ask and it is quite another to hear what is being said and to act accordingly,” says David Doey, OCT, superintendent of education for southern Ontario’s Lambton Kent DSB, which is writing Aboriginal history content with advice from area First Nation communities.

By the numbers


per cent dropout rate between 2007 and 2010 for First Nation, Métis and Inuit youth living off-reserve, compared with 8.5 per cent non-Aboriginal youth in Canada.


band-operated First Nation schools (80 elementary, 7 secondary, 31 alternative), along with 6 federal elementary schools, in Ontario.


communities affiliated with the Métis Nation of Ontario.


elementary students in Native language classes in 2010–11, up from 3,107 in 2006–07.


secondary students in Native language classes in 2010–11, up from 1,141 in 2006–07.


enrolment in secondary school Native studies in 2010–11, up from 1,097 in 2006–07.


ministry-funded projects for school board implementation of the province’s First Nation, Métis and Inuit Policy Framework, since 2007.


new textbooks for Grade 10 and 11 Native studies.

Engaging with FNMI students

In the Sudbury region, the Conseil scolaire catholique du Nouvel-Ontario is one of the largest French-language school boards in the province with 7,300 students at 38 sites. So far, an estimated 250 students are self-identified Aboriginal, and the number is steadily increasing.

Last fall, as part of a bigger push to engage First Nation, Métis and Inuit students and families, the board hired its first Aboriginal education consultant to help establish an advisory council (parent, community and other representatives) and develop pedagogical initiatives and strategies to support K–12 Aboriginal education. The board is also negotiating tuition agreements with First Nation communities whose on-reserve students attend provincial schools.

“We’re just starting to engage with Aboriginal education,” says Mélanie Smits, the education consultant, who is Métis.

In Cornwall, the Upper Canada DSB and the Ahkwesahsne Mohawk Board of Education in 2011 negotiated the province’s first seven-year education services agreement that covers on-reserve students in board high schools. “Now we are thoroughly involved, right from the outset,” says First Nation trustee Peter Garrow, a long-time advocate of reciprocal agreements. “We are equal partners.”

Building rapport takes time, given the lingering legacy of residential schools for First Nation families. Cast in the role of bridge builders between schools and FNMI communities is a new generation of FNMI school leaders in their 30s and 40s who say they hid their identity growing up.

“I remember going to school as a little girl not wanting people to know that I had Native background because somehow I knew what society thought of Native people,” says Rainbow school administrator Kathy Dokis-Ranney, whose father is Dokis First Nation. “I was already aware of the stereotype and didn’t want people to think that of me.” Debra Clements, OCT, a First Nation teacher at Lively District SS west of Sudbury last year, says, “I used to tell people I was French and Italian, even though no one ever told me to be ashamed of myself.”

Not now. Dokis-Ranney, whose board responsibilities include First Nation, Métis and Inuit education, and Clements, are among a cadre of front-line role models determined to engage students, teachers and parents in bringing the ministry framework to life in Sudbury public schools.

The city is a microcosm of the challenges for Ontario in coming to grips with First Nation, Métis and Inuit education. Sudbury has the fourth-highest concentration of Aboriginal residents in Ontario while self-identified FNMI make up nine per cent of students in Rainbow schools. By 2031, predicts Statistics Canada, Aboriginal residents could represent 13.2 per cent of Sudbury’s population — more than double the proportion in 2006.

Over the years, Rainbow negotiated tuition agreements with local First Nation bands, but since 2007, when the board began work on its FNMI policy, it has intensified efforts to reach out to communities that send students to the public board. One tool of engagement is an Aboriginal advisory council that includes 11 First Nations whose members give the board feedback on curriculum, hiring practices and school culture.

When she was handed the task of mobilizing schools to embrace the policy, Dokis-Ranney asked students what they needed to succeed in school. Without hesitation, they pleaded for Aboriginal support workers to help with emotional, social and academic issues. Since then, with Ministry funding, Rainbow has added four full-time support workers (with additional part-time support), increased its roster of Native language teachers to 11 from two, and hired a First Nations speech-and-language pathologist who works with elementary students on language acquisition and coaches teachers on effective teaching strategies.

With input from its advisory committee, the board is introducing Aboriginal-infused curriculum content so First Nation, Métis and Inuit students see themselves, and others gain knowledge as well. Through pilot projects, the board has experimented with interventions to engage students who could easily slip from school view. The Ravens Alternative Education Program, in place at three high schools, shows some promising results.

When asked what they need to succeed, students pleaded for Aboriginal support workers to help with emotional, social and academic issues.

Turning lives around

At Espanola HS, Grade 11 student Nimkiis Megwanebi hangs out with his friends on a large leather sofa in a second-floor classroom decorated with Native artwork. The 16-year-old from Whitefish River First Nation is an avid hockey player and dreams of becoming an archaeologist, but tends to skip school and is missing several credits needed to graduate this year.

In the Ravens program, he has been given a chance to turn things around.

Nimkiis and a dozen other Aboriginal students spend the day together in the same room with a teacher who supplements their required course work with art, drama, outdoor activities and visits from elders. Last year, the school hired a local artist to work with Ravens students on a mural that now spans the width of the Espanola school cafeteria.

Nimkiis knows what he would be doing if not with the Ravens: skipping school. “Usually my friends ask me to skip five minutes before class,” he says. “They say ‘don’t you want to go to the store?’” But not this semester, he says. “I don’t have time to go and walk around and see my friends and get that usual invitation.” By the end of the semester, he had skipped school less often and picked up four credits.

Rainbow board data show that students in the Ravens program achieved higher levels of credit accumulation — up 26 per cent at one school — than in the previous semester in a regular classroom. But funding for the program depends on the amount the board gets in Grants for Students from the ministry. That’s a concern to critics like McCue. “The net effect of nibbling around the edges is temporary,” he says. “As teachers and principals come and go, those innovations will wither on the vine.”

“There are students who don’t understand us, and if you scratch the surface out will come the negative responses about Native people,” says Marianna Couchie, chief of Nipissing First Nation.

Embracing small victories

Where school officials have learned to listen and ask questions, they see a payoff in informed teacher practice. For the past decade, Thunder Bay’s Lakehead PS has implemented a number of strategies, including focused teacher training, to enhance success for Aboriginal students. Two years ago, the board identified physical education as one of the most difficult credits for First Nation, Métis and Inuit students to acquire, unlike other classmates.

“Why are we sitting here asking the question?” recalls Sherri-Lynne Pharand, OCT, Lakehead superintendent of education with responsibilities for Aboriginal education. “Why don’t we ask the kids?”

When surveyed, Aboriginal students said they were unfamiliar with the competitive games played in high school, were often hungry or without appropriate sports gear. “We took those reasons away,” says Pharand, with added social supports for students and training for Grade 9 and 10 physical education teachers from Aboriginal sports experts in non-competitive activities like snow-shoeing and cross-country skiing. “It was some of the best feedback we have ever gotten from our staff,” she says. Significantly, student attendance in physical education classes rose with the introduction of non-competitive games. Early indicators show credit accumulation is on the rise. Thunder Bay First Nation parent Sylvia O’Meara, a member of the board’s Aboriginal advisory committee since its inception in 2003, is happy about board efforts over the past decade. “We are going forward and not looking back.”

Beyond individual success stories, some Aboriginal leaders want the province to mandate curriculum requirements (now expressed as “opportunities to learn”) that, as in other provinces, require all students to learn about First Nation, Métis and Inuit history, values and culture. “The problem we have in Ontario is that our story — the Métis story — largely remains untold,” says Lipinski, of Métis Nation of Ontario. While ecstatic over the distribution to teachers of more than 500 Métis “tool kits,” developed by his organization with ministry funding, he says all students should be required to learn about a constituency that makes up one-third of Aboriginal people in Ontario.

First Nations leaders are of a similar view about the teaching of treaties and other content. “It has to be mandatory,” declares Marianna Couchie, chief of Nipissing First Nation just outside of North Bay. “There are students who don’t understand us, and if you scratch the surface out will come the negative responses about Native people.”

In the meantime, school officials are happy to embrace small victories. At Princess Anne, where she watched the student presentations, Rainbow’s Kathy Dokis-Ranney was cheered that the event rolled out without any directive from the board. “It tells me our schools are getting more comfortable.”


In Ontario, several faculties of education are seen as leaders in recruitment of Aboriginal teachers and in the delivery of curriculum that teaches all prospective candidates about Aboriginal history, culture and learning styles. Here are some examples:

Queen’s University

  • Its Aboriginal Teacher Education Program consists of a one-year, full-time campus-based program or a two-year, part-time community-based program, which includes a summer session on-campus and practicum placements in First Nation schools.

Lakehead University

  • The department of Aboriginal Education offers a four-year honours bachelor of education (Aboriginal) for students of Aboriginal ancestry, as well as a Native Teacher Education Program and the Native Language Instructors’ Program.
  • All prospective mainstream teacher candidates must take an undergraduate course on Aboriginal education.

Nipissing University

  • The institution offers summer professional education programs for people of Aboriginal descent.
  • Those of Native ancestry can pursue specialty designations, such as an Aboriginal Teacher Certification Program that infuses traditional values, culture and art into the regular Ontario K–6 curriculum and Teacher of Anishnaabemowin (Ojibwe) as a Second Language from K–12.
  • The university’s Office of Aboriginal Initiatives set up Aboriginal Student Links as a student-to-student peer mentorship program.

Brock University

  • The Tecumseh Centre for Aboriginal Research and Education offers a four-year, part-time, community-based, B.Ed. Primary/Junior K–6 program in conjunction with the Northern Nishnawbe Education Council located in Sioux Lookout. Three-week face-to-face intensive courses are held in the spring and summer while video-conferencing makes up the bulk of instruction.

The Homework Club

At a staff meeting at Espanola HS in 2007, the topic turned to the low turnout of First Nation parents for parent-teacher night. Teacher Warren Tilston, OCT, was taken aback when Valerie Pheasant, education director for Whitefish River First Nation, asked a question: “When was the last time any of you came to visit us?”

“That really stuck with me,” recalls Tilston. “It was true that we had not been making efforts to go out there and we needed to.”

So he approached Claudette Jones, a secondary school support worker from nearby Sagamok Anishnaabek, where a large proportion of the school’s student population live, to work together to organize a Thursday night homework club at Sagamok’s community centre. “I felt it was important to put the presence of our school in their community,” he says. “If the conversation does not get to math, okay let’s talk about what is being talked about.” Over a meal, students get extra help on school work and connect with a teacher in an informal setting.

Tilston says he has gained personally and professionally. “I have seen my knowledge of the culture and the community explode,” he says. “It has been invaluable for me as an individual, an educator and for my family.” Every week, Tilston and his wife make the 35-minute journey with their four young children in tow. “They get exposed to another culture other than the one I come from,” he says. “My kids have a blast there.”

Christine Toulouse, the current secondary student support worker at Sagamok, says the homework club is “fabulous” and now is working to attract younger students.

“Sometimes they don’t want to approach the teacher but they have a better rapport with Mr. Tilston,” she says. The club is a way to connect with parents, who report improvement in their children’s school work, says Toulouse. “They are aware of it [homework club] and they try to get the kids to come out,” she says.

Says Tilston: “It is a positive experience for all.”

Only 25 per cent of Ahkwesahsne Mohawk students attending Upper Canada schools graduated on time in 2004–05.
By 2011–12, the rate had climbed to 70 per cent.

Empowering alliance

As a long-time leader in First Nations education issues in the province, Barry Montour, OCT, has seen what he describes as “some very divisive relationships between First Nations and public boards.”

Not so between the Ahkwesahsne Mohawk Board of Education that serves the second-largest First Nation community in the province and the Upper Canada DSB in eastern Ontario. Their relationship, built over time, is paying dividends through a shared focus on the needs of First Nations students.

“Our students are your students and when they succeed, we all share in that,” says Montour, director of education for Ahkwesahsne Mohawk, which operates three federally funded elementary schools and sends some of its high school students to Upper Canada. “That’s been the defining change in the relationship.” David K. Thomas, director of education for the Upper Canada DSB, says his schools “no longer see themselves as hosting First Nation students. This is their school and they are totally equal partners in the learning journey.”

A multi-year education services agreement between the two boards spells out their respective commitments to Ahkwesahsne Mohawk students. Upper Canada, one of the first public boards to negotiate an agreement beyond one year, became the first in 2011 to sign a comprehensive, seven-year agreement. Upper Canada agrees to deliver Mohawk as a Second Language program, foster cultural awareness and collaborate with Ahkwesahsne Mohawk on in-service teacher training. Upper Canada holds parent-teacher interviews on Ahkwesahsne Mohawk at least once a year, and officials from the two boards confer regularly to discuss test scores, curriculum and shared professional development.

Cornwall CVS, a top destination for Ahkwesahsne Mohawk students, sets aside room at the school for them to hang out and meet with counsellors.

Ahkwesahsne Mohawk pays for four resource teachers (with a fifth paid by the board) to work with high school students on academic and social issues that could impede their ability to graduate on time. “By focusing on Grade 9 and 10 students, and improving the pass rates on the provincial literacy test, we have been able to retain students and see more of them move on to graduation,” says Montour.

Beyond the legal requirements of the agreement are a number of unofficial points of contact between the two boards. Thomas has participated in sweat lodge events and he joins school principals for ceremonial events at Ahkwesahsne Mohawk. “You don’t earn trust with a handshake,” says Thomas. “You earn it with a lifetime of action.”

The relationship is yielding results. Montour says that only 25 per cent of Ahkwesahsne Mohawk students attending Upper Canada schools graduated on time in 2004–05. By 2011–12, the graduation rate had climbed to 70 per cent compared with a national average of less than 40 per cent for First Nations youth.

Last June, of 30 First Nation students (25 on-reserve and five off-reserve) who graduated from Cornwall CVS, 23 are moving on to postsecondary education this fall and one into an apprenticeship program.

One of last year’s graduates is Autumn Tenasco-King, who is planning to attend Syracuse University next fall or spring. A Mohawk speaker, she credits her mother and teachers for setting high expectations and encouraging her to explore her Mohawk identity. “I have been told all my life if you do well in school you are going to go places,” she says. “My mother drilled it into me and the teachers were my building blocks.”

While at Cornwall CVS, Tenasco-King served as one of several student leaders who encouraged other Aboriginal students to stay in school. Months after her high school graduation, she recalls the thrill of her accomplishment. “We had proof that we can rise above the expectations.”

Self identification

At Keewatin-Patricia DSB, a sprawling jurisdiction in northwestern Ontario, the move to promote voluntary self-identification by First Nation, Métis and Inuit students came in 2005, two years ahead of the province’s Aboriginal policy framework.

With 40 per cent of its 5,100 students of First Nations ancestry — and many of them dropping out or struggling in school — the board needed a profile of students to track their progress. “Prior to self-identification, [First Nations] kids were invisible learners and they disappeared on us,” says Jack McMaster, director of education for Keewatin-Patricia. “The disengagement usually started in the middle years — Grades 6 to 8. By the time they hit high school, they were disinterested, not being successful and gradually disappeared out the door.”

But a lingering fallout from residential schools and parental concerns over possible misuse of the data meant the board had to invest time and energy listening to First Nations leaders and families before making the case that information could yield insights — and remedies. “If people don’t trust us to do the right thing, they will never engage with us,” says McMaster. “We assured them that what we wanted to do was not to wait 10 to 12 years to find out that a student was not successful.”

As it collected data on students, the board simplified school improvement strategies and adopted early intervention measures for struggling students. It redesigned teacher training to address gaps in their dealings with Aboriginal students. Instead of centrally driven “talk-and-stand” professional development, the board distributed funds to schools, with release time for teachers to work together and, at times, with a board-supplied coach to experiment with small-group instruction and other strategies.

The board has added culturally relevant resources, hired additional Native language speakers and, with funding from local First Nation communities, recruited high school Aboriginal counsellors. In a significant new partnership, the board and Seven Generations Education Institute agreed, in 2011, to share delivery of adult education programs in four northwestern Ontario communities, making it easier for high school dropouts to earn a diploma.

In a ministry-funded oral language project, Keewatin-Patricia and seven other northern boards used a facilitator to train teachers to work with young elementary school students, many of them First Nations, with weak language skills. Teachers used culturally relevant materials to spark student interest, employing small group instruction to engage students to justify thoughts and opinions as they built their reading comprehension.

In 2009–10, the fifth and final year of the project, the northern boards reported a 5.8-percentage-point gain on the provincial Grade 3 reading test compared with a three-point gain province-wide. For the neediest schools in the eight boards, where additional support was provided, the results were even more impressive — a 16.9-point improvement.

For Keewatin-Patricia officials, the results showed that, with the right supports, First Nations students have the potential to do well as learners. “It tells us that a lot of [First Nations] students are not special education students,” says Keewatin-Patricia superintendent Sean Monteith. OCT. “It is just a language issue. If we can bring them up to a level of standard about language, their whole confidence increases.”

“I want to make it real for them because it is their history too,” says residential school survivor Susie Jones. “It is opening their eyes.”

Residential school survivor

In 1941, Walpole Island First Nation resident Susie Jones was taken from her home in southwestern Ontario at age four and spent the next 12 years at an Anglican residential school in Sault Ste. Marie. After graduation from high school, she moved to Michigan and only returned to Walpole Island 20 years ago when she was age 55. In her community, she volunteers on health and education issues and serves as a spokesperson for residential school survivors. For her contributions, she received an Ontario Senior Achievement Award in 2011 from the provincial government.

In recent years, she has worked with the Lambton Kent DSB, colleges and universities telling her story to students. “I want to make it real for them because it is their history too,” says Jones, 75. “It is opening their eyes.”

Her visits to schools are part of a broader effort by the southwestern Ontario board to develop new curriculum resources, in co-operation with four area First Nation communities to send their students to Lambton Kent high schools. Materials to explain a controversial piece of local history — the 1995 Ipperwash land dispute and the shooting death of First Nation protester Dudley George — are under development by the board, the Indigenous Education Coalition (a curriculum resource provider), and Kettle and Stony Point First Nation. A similar joint project is underway to tell the history of Chief Tecumseh, one of the heroes for Canada in the War of 1812.

“What we have tried to do is be responsive to the history and experiences of our local First Nations,” says David Doey, superintendent of education for Lambton Kent. “It is immediately relevant to all learners in our district to have that appreciation.”

Joint curriculum initiatives like those at Lambton Kent are long overdue, says Bruce Stonefish, executive director of the Indigenous Education Coalition and a former First Nation trustee with the board. “We are all a product of the same education system in Ontario, which has taught us very little about First Nation people, history or culture.”

Ms. Jones’s personal history tracks a change in attitudes. In 2003, she was appointed to the Lambton Kent board to represent four local First Nation communities. She recalls sitting beside a fellow trustee who asked, “Why don’t Indians like our education system?”

She responded: “You have got to be kidding. Have you never heard of residential schools?” After that, she collected material for a presentation to board administrators and trustees that led to invitations for her to speak to students.

Over the past five years, board officials say they have made concerted efforts to foster a working relationship with regular visits to First Nation communities, shared professional development for teachers from Lambton Kent and on-reserve schools, and regular meetings of principals from First Nation and board schools.

“What I find about Lambton Kent is there is a belief that our students are a shared responsibility,” says Cathy Hampshire, principal of Hillside School on Kettle and Stony Point First Nation. “That was never there before.” Her school’s Grade 9 students move to North Lambton SS, which has First Nations artwork in its foyer and a former classroom set aside for First Nations students who can meet with an Aboriginal support worker supplied by Kettle and Stony Point.

The board declined to share specific data on First Nations student achievement, citing small sample sizes. Anecdotally, officials say they see improved attendance rates and a significant decline in the number of First Nations students suspended from school.

Hampshire also points to encouraging signs. In 2011, after their first semester at North Lambton, 11 of 12 former Hillside students earned all four of their Grade 9 credits, with more of them choosing academic subjects than in previous years. “To get that piece of data was critical — to know that First Nations kids are having success and we are on the right track,” she says.