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Education As A Treaty Right

Editorial By Doug Cuthand

Of all the government programs for Indians the post secondary education program has had the most success. Within a decade our people have embraced higher education and graduated from university in unprecedented numbers. The result is a large group of professionals that will provide leadership into the next century. They are the engine that will drive our development.

But it hasn't been cheap, meaningful development seldom is, and as a result the Department of Indian Affairs is looking for excuses to cut back on funding. The argument has two sides, those who look at the perceived abuses and point out the cost of the program and others who see the long term benefits that will result in a strong and well developed Indian Nation.

Our elders and political leadership interpret the treaties in the broadest sense, based on the spirit and intent of the agreement between two nations. They regard education as a treaty right that includes education in all its forms from kindergarten to the doctoral level of university education. Also included are all forms of post-secondary education such technical training, business colleges and any other advancement through accredited higher learning.

However treaty rights are not a one way street and the responsibility for fairness exists on both sides. While treaty rights benefit the individuals it must be remembered that they are essentially group rights.

Group rights are the rights that exist for the greater good. When the Treaties were negotiated our leaders saw that the times were changing and they would have to change with them. They called for schools to be built once they settled on their reserves. They saw education as one of the tools to deal with change.

Two decades ago the Chiefs recognized education as an historic priority and developed the education institutions that we enjoy today. The Federated College, the Institute of Technologies and the Cultural Centre have placed Saskatchewan Indians at the forefront of Indian Education.

This year we have close to 3,000 students enrolled in post secondary education. These students represent our future. While their education will no doubt increase their earning power they must not forget their roots. Their education is an asset to improve the lot of our people.

It may come as a surprise to some but education has a bill attached to it. Education is not free but was paid for when the treaties were signed. Students who are fortunate enough to gain an education owe something to the Indian Nation. The method of payment is up to them, but in the future a more formal method may be developed. Many students recognize this debt and work for their band or assist their Chief and Council. Others will work with individual band embers in social counselling or spiritual areas. This sharing was what the early Chiefs saw when they called for education to be provided as a Treaty Right.

Rights work both ways. The government is responsible to deliver them, and the Indian Nations are responsible to see that they benefit the total community. And both parties are responsible to see that the promises are kept.