Good Governance for School Boards

Trustee Professional Development Program

Module 16 — First Nation Trustees: Unique Roles & Responsibilities

Last updated in December 2019

Video developed in 2014

First Nation Trustees: Unique Roles & Responsibilities
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  • The dual role of the First Nation trustee
  • The unique responsibilities of the First Nation trustee;
    • to the First Nation community
    • to the school board
  • Information about Indigenous students in Ontario
  • The responsibility of all trustees to work on behalf of Indigenous students

Please note - in this module, we use the term “Indigenous” interchangeably with “First Nation, Métis and Inuit”.

The video presented below was developed in 2014. It features First Nation Trustees sharing their experiences, perspectives and work in supporting and promoting the success of Indigenous students. Please note that references to Canadian Census data may have changed.


First Nation Trustees (otherwise known as Trustees to represent the needs of Indigenous Students) have a unique role in addition to the general role and responsibilities they fulfill as members of a school board.

First Nation Trustees are appointed to a school board by their community. They have a special responsibility to act in the best interests of the Indigenous students who attend schools of their school board under an Education Services Agreement (ESA) or the Reciprocal Education Approach (REA). As outlined in Ontario Regulation 462/97, “First Nations Representation on Boards”, First Nation representation on a board of trustees is determined by the existence of one or more ESAs or the REA and by the number of Indigenous students attending the board’s schools.

Education Services Agreements

The Education Services Agreement (ESA) are agreements between First Nations and/or education authorities and school boards to support a First Nation student who resides on reserve to attend a provincially funded school. Reverse Education Services Agreements (RESAs) are agreements between First Nations and/or education authorities and school boards to allow a pupil of the board to attend a First Nation-operated or federally-operated school. ESAs are on one level, a purchase-of-service agreement stating that the school board will, for an agreed-upon fee, provide accommodation, instruction, and special services to Indigenous students. Of equal importance, the ESA reflects the relationship and respect between a First Nation community and the school board and supports how the board and community will work together to provide the best possible education outcome for Indigenous students. Today, school boards can view ESAs as positive tools for building relationships, reciprocity and respect for shared histories as opposed to business contracts. ESAs and RESAs can vary depending on the types of services and programs that the First Nation community and the school board agree should be provided. Once the ESA is in place, the school board is committed to providing the programs and services in the agreement.

Beyond the obligations as per the ESA, the school board has a general obligation to provide:

  • equitable access to education services and opportunities that are consistent for all students and meet provincial expectations
  • an instructional and learning environment that respects and promotes Indigenous culture and shared history
  • efforts to recruit, retain and promote Indigenous teaching and support staff
  • provision of Indigenous cultural, language and land-based instructional programs
  • defined and transparent reporting to each First Nation Education Authority, school boards and First Nation Advisory Committees
  • First Nation involvement in schools attended by Indigenous students
Reciprocal Education Approach

Sections 185 and 188 of the Education Act were amended in September 2019 to establish the Reciprocal Education Approach (REA). Section 185 of the Act addresses situations where students living “off-reserve” wish to attend a First Nation-operated or federally-operated school (“First Nation school”) located “on” or “off-reserve”. These arrangements were formerly known as reverse tuition fee agreements. Section 188 of the Act addresses situations where students ordinarily residing “on-reserve” wish to attend a school of a school board.

REA seeks to support First Nation students in achieving greater access to education and strengthen a parent or guardian’s choice when selecting the type of education that best meets their child’s needs. Under the REA, and when specific requirements are met, school boards will be required to take a student-first approach by admitting eligible students who wish to attend a school of a school board and supporting eligible students who wish to attend a First Nation-operated or federally-operated school, subject to that school’s admission policies.

Under the REA, ESAs and RESAs that were entered into prior to September 1, 2019 may remain in effect until the agreement expires or is terminated. Parties may continue to enter into agreements under the REA.

The Role of the First Nation Trustee

The First Nation trustee has a key role in representing the interests of the Indigenous community at the school board level and ensuring that there is dialogue with the community about the work of the board and, in particular, matters affecting Indigenous students.

Under Ontario’s Education Act Ontario Regulation 462/97, “First Nations Representation on Boards”, First Nation trustees are appointed by the community they represent and affirmed by the school board. First Nation trustees are full members of the board of trustees and, as such, have all the rights and responsibilities of any other duly-elected trustee.

The First Nation trustee shares with other members of the board of trustees the responsibility to:

  • govern in a manner that is responsive to its entire community
  • act in the interests of all learners in the district
  • advocate actively for students, their learning and their well-being in the board’s work with the community, the municipality and the province
  • promote confidence in publicly funded education through communications about the goals and achievements of the board

The board of trustees is responsible for setting the overall direction for the school system through a multi-year strategic planning process that is reviewed annually. The board of trustees also provides direction through its policy processes. These include planning, developing, implementing and evaluating policy. The annual budget also reflects the approved directions of the elected board in the way resources are allocated to schools and programs.

Through the director of education, the board of trustees holds the system accountable for achieving the results established through its planning process. The elected board reports to the public and the province about system and school performance.

The First Nation trustee, while sharing these responsibilities and contributions to the decision-making of the board, ensures the interests of Indigenous students are recognized.

The Unique Responsibilities of the First Nation Trustee

The First Nation trustee contributes to:

  • monitoring the negotiation of the education services agreement
  • ensuring that the actions of the board reflect the education services agreement
  • ensuring that both parties to the agreement are fulfilling their obligations
  • ensuring that mechanisms are in place for effective accountability to the First Nation community
  • ensuring a high-quality academic and cultural education for Indigenous students
  • ensuring that Indigenous students are free from any expression of racism and harassment as students of the board’s schools.

The First Nation trustee is also in a position to encourage the involvement of parents and Indigenous communities in their students’ education within the schools of the district school board. This value is embedded in Ontario’s First Nation, Métis, and Inuit Education Policy Framework (2007-2017).

Some education services agreements specify First Nation representation on the school board’s Special Education Advisory Committee (SEAC). Where a First Nation trustee is required by regulation to be a member of the board, the SEAC membership must also include a First Nation trustee to represent the interests of First Nation students. As well, a large number of school boards have established First Nation Advisory Committees to provide a forum for discussing Indigenous education issues. When school boards have a First Nation trustee, they may have a First Nation Advisory Committee. In these committees, the First Nation trustee is usually the chair or co-chair, and membership includes a representative from each First Nation that has students in the board’s schools. Increasingly in boards, these committees also have a responsibility to consider appropriate programs and other issues affecting Métis and Inuit students.

The Responsibilities of Individual Trustees

While the First Nation trustee’s primary role is to represent the needs of Indigenous students, they must, like all trustees, maintain a focus on student achievement and well-being and to participate in making decisions that benefit the entire board district while representing the interests of their constituents. Trustees must also interpret the views and decisions of the elected board in their reporting back to their constituents. It is important that trustees are aware of the support and advice available from the director of education and senior staff and are familiar with board policies that may apply to issues under discussion between the trustees and their constituents.

A school trustee is a member of a team – the board of trustees. Only the board of trustees has the authority to make decisions or to take action; an individual trustee in and of themselves does not have this authority. While members of the board of trustees act as representatives of their community, they have a responsibility, as a member of the school board, to participate in policy-making and strategic planning that is in the interests of all of the school board’s students and is grounded in promoting student achievement and well-being. In this respect, every trustee of the board has a responsibility for the interests of Indigenous students who attend the schools of the board.


First Nation Students in Ontario

The 2016 Canadian Census reports that approximately 236,680 First Nation peoples live in Ontario. Approximately 23% of Ontario’s First Nation peoples live on reserves. There are 133 distinct First Nation communities in Ontario. Outside of reserves, about 77% of First Nation peoples live in rural or urban areas and predominantly in urban areas. The census indicates that the overall Ontario school-age (ages 5–19) population of First Nation students is 62,840.

Indigenous students who live in First Nation communities attend schools in their own communities or attend the province’s publicly-funded schools. First Nation communities operate a significant number of schools and alternative education programs - the majority of these are at the elementary level. In addition, there are currently six federally administered schools for Grades 1 to 8 in Ontario among the following communities: Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, near Belleville; and, Six Nations of the Grand River First Nation, near Brantford.

Financial responsibility for the education of First Nation students who reside in First Nation communities, whether they attend publicly-funded schools or schools in First Nation communities, falls under the jurisdiction of Indigenous Services Canada.

As noted previously, First Nation students who live in First Nation communities and attend schools operated by a district school board or school authority do so under either the REA or an ESA, where this agreement has not yet expired. These agreements are legal and binding.

As noted in the census data, a large percentage of First Nation students live outside a First Nation community, often in urban areas. These students may have relocated with their families to urban areas or were born in those areas. The challenge for school boards is to encourage confidential voluntary self-identification so that they will know the numbers of Indigenous students in their schools and be able to plan for and allocate resources that meet their specific needs and honour their identity as Indigenous children and youth. Voluntary confidential self-identification policies are developed in collaboration with Indigenous communities and must respect issues of how data is collected, stored, used and shared with the Indigenous community.

Métis Students in Ontario

The 2016 Canadian Census reports that approximately 120,585 Métis people live in Ontario. The census also indicates that the overall Ontario school-age (ages 5–19) population of Métis students is 26,135.

The Métis are a distinct Aboriginal people with a unique history, culture, language and territory that includes the waterways of Ontario, surrounds the Great Lakes and spans what was known as the historic Northwest. Although there is no general agreement on criteria for an exact definition of Métis, Canada’s Métis were formally recognized as an Aboriginal people in section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982. In a unanimous decision based on a case involving the rights of a family belonging to the Sault Ste. Marie Métis community, the Supreme Court of Canada confirmed the existence of Métis communities in Canada and the constitutional protection of their existing Aboriginal rights.

The term “Métis” in section 35 of the Constitution does not encompass all individuals with mixed Indigenous and European heritage; rather, it refers to “distinctive peoples who, in addition to their mixed ancestry, developed their own customs, way of life, and recognizable group identity separate from their Indian or Inuit and European forebears.” The Court did not set out a comprehensive definition of Métis for all purposes. It did, however, set out the basic means to identify Métis rights-holders. The Court identified three broad factors – self-identification, ancestral connection to the historic Métis community, and community acceptance:

  • Self-identification - the individual must self-identify as a member of a Métis community. It is not enough to self-identify as Métis, that identification must have an ongoing connection to a historic Métis community.
  • Ancestral Connection - Métis rights-holders must have some proof of ancestral connection to the historic Métis community whose collective rights they are exercising.
  • Community Acceptance - there must be proof of acceptance by the modern community. Membership in a Métis political organization may be relevant but the membership requirements of the organization and its role in the Métis community must also be put into evidence. The evidence must be “objectively verifiable.” That means that there must be documented proof and a fair process for community acceptance.

The Court said that the Métis were included as one of the “aboriginal peoples of Canada” to recognize them, to value distinctive Métis cultures, and to enhance their survival.

As with First Nation students, all school boards in Ontario have a voluntary confidential self-identification policy that applies equally to Métis and Inuit students and is developed in consultation with Métis and Inuit communities.

Inuit Students

There were 3,860 Inuit in Ontario according to 2016 Census figures. The overall Ontario school-age (ages 5–19) population of Inuit students is 1,125. The majority of these students live in the Ottawa area and attend Ottawa schools. Across Canada, the great majority of the entire Inuit population, live in communities in: Nunatsiavut (Labrador); Nunavik (Quebec); Nunavut; and the Inuvialuit Settlement Region of the Northwest Territories. Each of these four Inuit groups has settled land claims. These Inuit regions cover one-third of Canada’s land mass.

The word “Inuit” means “the people” in the Inuit language Inuktitut and is the term by which Inuit refer to themselves. Inuit are the Aboriginal people of Arctic Canada. To understand some of the challenges facing Inuit families in the area of education, it is necessary to review some of the rapid social changes that have occurred in the past 60 years. As recently as the 1950s, the majority of Inuit peoples lived primarily in small semi-nomadic groups relying on the resources of the land and sea for sustenance. During the 1950s, Inuit were being relocated from their homes to resettle in communities where their children were assimilated into the Canadian education system, either in residential schools or in schools built in northern communities during the 1960s.

At school, speaking Inuktitut was actively discouraged. Attendance at school was enforced by the RCMP. The curricula followed southern Canadian mainstream models. Further disruptions to learning resulted when families moved into communities from outpost camps to maintain contact with their children. Many Inuit parents and Elders, particularly in small communities, could not comprehend why their able-bodied older children, their helpers, had to sit about in school learning nothing useful for their lives, as they saw it. As soon as children were of legal age to leave school, many families encouraged their children to join their parents in hunting and maintaining their families.

This extremely rapid change has had a significant impact on Inuit children and families. Their adjustment to school life and successes in school are a testament to the resilience of the community. Inuit student achievement and graduation rates are steadily increasing, and the Inuktitut language is one of the strongest Aboriginal languages in Canada.


The Role of School Boards

Beyond the obligations boards have under ESAs and the REA, the opportunity is available to them to play a significant role in developing education programs that meet the unique needs of Indigenous students at both the elementary and secondary levels. The opportunity also exists to consult with and involve First Nations, Métis and Inuit leaders in their local communities to create education programs for all students which highlight the benefits for them, their communities and society as a whole, of learning experiences that draw on the rich cultures, histories, perspectives and world views of First Nation, Métis, and Inuit peoples.

Ontario’s First Nation, Métis, and Inuit Education Policy Framework (2007-2017) provided the strategic policy context within which the Ministry of Education, school boards, schools, and Indigenous partners and communities work together to improve the academic achievement of Indigenous students.

The role of all trustees, not just First Nation trustees, is to help create the vision and set the strategic direction that will guide the board and its schools. As the representative of Indigenous students, the First Nation trustee is in a unique position to ensure that Indigenous culture is part of that vision and that the strategic direction of the board includes the interests of Indigenous peoples.

Indigenous communities are interested in finding ways to promote and support the success and well-being of their children. All trustees have a role in representing Indigenous students and their families at the board table and beyond to ensure their voices are heard and to promote student success and well-being.

Truth and Reconciliation Commission

In 2015, the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was issued. Its Calls to Action represented the Commission’s blueprint for Canadians to work together to build a better future for Indigenous Canadians. Two Calls in particular focused on education - calls 62 and 63:

  1. We call upon the federal, provincial, and territorial governments, in consultation and collaboration with Survivors, Aboriginal peoples, and educators, to:

    1. Make age-appropriate curriculum on residential schools, Treaties, and Aboriginal peoples’ historical and contemporary contributions to Canada a mandatory education requirement for Kindergarten to Grade Twelve students.
    2. Provide the necessary funding to post-secondary institutions to educate teachers on how to integrate Indigenous knowledge and teaching methods into classrooms.
    3. Provide the necessary funding to Aboriginal schools to utilize Indigenous knowledge and teaching methods in classrooms.
    4. Establish senior-level positions in government at the assistant deputy minister level or higher dedicated to Aboriginal content in education.
  2. We call upon the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada to maintain an annual commitment to Aboriginal education issues, including:

    1. Developing and implementing Kindergarten to Grade Twelve curriculum and learning resources on Aboriginal peoples in Canadian history, and the history and legacy of residential schools.
    2. Sharing information and best practices on teaching curriculum related to residential schools and Aboriginal history.
    3. Building student capacity for intercultural understanding, empathy, and mutual respect.
    4. Identifying teacher-training needs relating to the above

The Ontario government has committed to implementing these Calls to Action, and has begun a number of initiatives within the Ministry of Education to do so. In turn, Ontario’s public school boards, school board trustees, schools, teachers, and communities have begun to take action to improve educational experiences and outcomes for Indigenous students. For more information, see Module 20 — A Journey Towards Truth and Reconciliation.

Ontario’s First Nation, Métis, and Inuit Education Policy Framework

The Ministry of Education released its First Nation, Métis, and Inuit Education Policy Framework in 2007. This framework set out objectives and strategies designed to meet two primary challenges by the year 2016 – to improve achievement among Indigenous students and to close the gap between Indigenous and all students. Progress has been made in both areas, but work continues.

The introduction to the Framework describes its directions as follows:

“The strategies outlined in the framework are based on a holistic and integrated approach to improving Aboriginal student outcomes. The overriding issues affecting Aboriginal student achievement are a lack of awareness among teachers of the particular learning styles of Aboriginal students, and a lack of understanding within schools and school boards of First Nation, Métis, and Inuit cultures, histories, and perspectives. Factors that contribute to student success include teaching strategies that are appropriate to Aboriginal learner needs, curriculum that reflects First Nation, Métis, and Inuit cultures and perspectives, effective counselling and outreach, and a school environment that encourages Aboriginal student and parent engagement. It is also important for educators to understand the First Nations perspective on the school system, which has been strongly affected by residential school experiences and has resulted in intergenerational mistrust of the education system. It is essential that First Nation, Métis, and Inuit students are engaged and feel welcome in school, and that they see themselves and their cultures in the curriculum and the school community.” (p.6)

Since it was released, intensive and successful efforts have been made in school boards across the province to move towards the realization of the objectives of the Framework. Most recently, a Third Progress Report on the implementation of the Framework was released in 2018.


While the First Nation trustee has a unique role in working for the best interests of Indigenous students attending Ontario schools, there is the parallel role of serving as a member of the school board to promote student success and well-being for all the students of the board. The First Nation trustee’s fellow board members equally have a responsibility for all students including Indigenous students. Together they can work to ensure that the cultures, histories, perspectives and world views of First Nation, Métis, and Inuit peoples are fully represented in the teaching and learning environments throughout the board, thereby enriching the education experience for all students.

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