Augustana alumnus spearheads new First Nations school commission

The Maskwacis Education Schools Commission officially took charge of all schools in the Maskwacis area this September as a unified First Nations school authority, led by University of Alberta Augustana alumnus Brian Wildcat.

Tia Lalani - 25 September 2018

The Maskwacis Education Schools Commission signed an agreement with the Alberta government in June 2018 to help support the commission and education in Maskwacis. Photo courtesy of facebook/@MaskwacisEducation.

In May of 2018, the federal government signed an education agreement with four central Alberta First Nations to create the Maskwacis Education Schools Commission. Although the MESC was created in an official capacity then, it has been a long time coming according to commission superintendent and Augustana (then Augustana University College) alumnus Brian Wildcat.

Wildcat attended Augustana University College from 1978-80 before attending the University of Calgary for physical education and then pursuing a master's in educational administration at the University of Alberta's North Campus ('95). As former superintendent of the Ermineskin Cree Nation's Miyo Wahkohtowin Education, Wildcat spearheaded what would eventually become the MESC by setting up a discussion to encourage collaboration in 2009-at first between his own nation, Maskwacis, and the Samson Cree Nation-in order to increase student achievement, graduation rates, and engagement.

"We began with a very modest agenda," Wildcat explained. "We started sharing basic information, including policies and contracts, between the school districts."

The notion of sharing and working together would later become very important in creating the commission, as it relies heavily on Cree ideals and values.

Deciding to pursue a unified First Nations school authority was spurred on by the First Nations Education Act rolled out by the Government of Canada in 2014. The Act itself received a negative response from First Nations Chiefs, who believed there wasn't enough consultation with Indigenous communities.

To offer an alternate solution, the Maskwacis Education Summit took place in the spring of 2015, where chiefs and councils from the four communities that would go on to make up the MESC-Ermineskin Cree Nation, Samson Cree Nation, Montana First Nation, and Louis Bull Tribe-met to aggregate the authorities within the Maskwacis community. Following the summit, the MESC addressed the government's shortcomings and held thirty-seven community consultations, where about 1600 people got to provide feedback on the idea. The response was overwhelmingly positive.

"We got some really big ideas from the dialogue taking place between the four nations-in terms of coming up with ways to work with each other and setting priorities-and from the community of Maskwacis itself," said Wildcat, as he outlined the ideas that came to inspire the commission, which all represent Cree perspective, Cree ways of thinking, and Cree values and principles.

"One of the key principles underlying all of our work is 'Wahkohtowin'," Wildcat explained, also referencing the lodge that we have at Augustana under the same name. "The idea that all of us are related, all of us are connected, and that all of us have a responsibility to maintain good relations and work together for a positive result became foundational for the commission."

The MESC took charge of all 11 schools, including 2200 students and 420 employees, when it was officially launched on September 4. Some of the on-the-ground changes that can be expected this year include more second-level services and a strong central office to lend resources to the schools that were not previously possible.

For longer-term outcomes, the commission will target increased graduation rates, and will also continue work that has already begun on imbibing the current curriculum with more Cree language and culture programs, with hopes to move towards a land-based educational program and the development of their own separate curriculum, in time.

The commission will also continue to seek input from the community as they operate around a Wahkohtowin inspired governance model, as a move away from the Indian Act governance model. "Our school board will be in constant communication with community stakeholders, parents, elders, chiefs and councils, and youth," Wildcat said. "We will require our board to have a lot of engagement with those different community groups all year long."

That engagement will not be difficult to maintain, according to Wildcat.

"We've put together a really strong team from the board right on down to the school administrators, the principals, and teachers. I think the whole community is looking forward to this."