When Shawn Atleo quit his job as National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations last month, Ottawa’s proposed overhaul of aboriginal education, which had been so close to success, seemed doomed. The Conservative government regretfully yanked the bill, citing the same resistance from some native leaders that fuelled Mr. Atleo’s departure.
In recent weeks, however, cracks have appeared in the wall of opposition to Bill C-33. Several native leaders – from Meadow Lake Tribal Council and the Battleford Tribal Chiefs in Saskatchewan – have called on Ottawa to reintroduce the legislation. They argue there’s no reason the bill’s fate should hinge on Mr. Atleo’s resignation, or the opposition of other native leaders, and they’re right. “It is time that we get Bill C-33 back on track,” said Chief Lori Whitecalf of Sweetgrass First Nation. Ottawa should listen to her.
Bill C-33 wasn’t perfect, but it was better than the status quo. It would have improved the plight of native children at on-reserve schools by setting minimum education standards and increasing funding. The legislation, the end result of a four years’ effort between Ottawa and native leaders, shouldn’t be allowed to simply die on the vine.
Just 40 per cent of young adults living on-reserve complete high school, a number that hasn’t budged in decades. Those poor educational outcomes are partly attributed to chronic underfunding. Bill C-33 offered to improve that with a new cash commitment of at least $1.9-billion. Some chiefs, however, took issue with what they viewed as the strings attached to the money. They objected to the minister of aboriginal affairs’ authority to appoint nine educational professionals to a council that would oversee on-reserve education and help write regulations. Some believed the bill interfered with their claims of self-government.
Mr. Atleo supported the bill because he believed that boosting graduation rates was a way to equip the next generation for greater autonomy, both personal and political. Since Mr. Atleo’s departure, the AFN has been adrift and education reform has been stuck. Reintroducing Bill C-33, with provision for bands to opt in or stay out, is one way to move forward. Individual tribal councils that still support the bill should be given the chance to sign on to the proposed legislation, claim their fair share of funding and offer native children the education they deserve.