John Richards teaches in the Simon Fraser University public policy program. He is also a fellow-in-residence at the C.D. Howe Institute, and the author of the institute report: Are We Making Progress? New Evidence on Aboriginal Education Outcomes in Provincial and Reserve Schools.
In 2011 Chuck Strahl, at the time Minister of Aboriginal Affairs, and Shawn Atleo, then as now head of the Assembly of First Nations, agreed to launch a major initiative to improve reserve schools.
The reasons to do so are obvious. For decades, on-reserve high school completion has remained very low. According to the 2011 census, only 40 per cent of young adults, aged 20-24 and living on-reserve, had completed high school. Results off-reserve were not good, but provincial schools are now taking their responsibility to Aboriginal students more seriously. In 2011, 70 per cent of young First Nation adults living off-reserve had completed high school.
Three years after the initiative began, Bernard Valcourt, the present Minister, has tabled in Parliament The First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act (Bill C-33). Atleo has given it qualified support; many chiefs have denounced it as unwarranted federal intrusion on the First Nation treaty right to control K-12 education. If we take a maximal interpretation of treaties, the chiefs are correct. But they are ignoring the brute fact: on-reserve education results are unacceptable.
I acknowledge a minor conflict of interest. I have played a small role as consultant with Aboriginal Affairs on this file.
I invite readers to read Bill C-33. Here in summary is what it is all about.
The Act requires creation of a Council of Education Professionals, experts in First Nation education. On many matters where the Minister could previously make decisions without consultation, he must now seek the advice of the Council.
It includes sections similar to a provincial schools act. For example, it specifies positions required for all reserve schools and their respective responsibilities: a director of education responsible for day-to-day administration of all schools on a reserve; school principals; school inspectors.
First Nations councils must provide means whereby parents, elders and students have “the opportunity to provide advice on school success plans, school policies, extra curricular activities and education programs, including school policies or education programs relating to First Nations languages or cultures.”
It enables individual First Nations to delegate their authority over education to a First Nations Education Authority comprising several First Nations, and which may become the equivalent for First Nations schools of a school district in provincial school systems.
It establishes as a funding principle that Aboriginal Affairs must provide funding for “each First Nation school and to persons … attending such a school that are of a quality reasonably comparable to that of similar services generally offered in a similarly sized public school that is regulated under provincial legislation and is located in an analogous region [of the same province].” Funding must allow for study of a First Nations language and culture.
The reasons for low on-reserve high school completion are complex. The lack of professional organization of reserve schools is almost certainly one of them. Among provinces with large First Nation cohorts, Manitoba results are lowest. Only 30 per cent of young on-reserve adults have high school certfication. In British Columbia, by contrast, reserves have organized province-wide agencies that serve as quasi-school districts, and the provincial education ministry has aggressively pursued improvements in off-reserve Aboriginal education over the last two decades. In B.C., 60 per cent of on-reserve young adults have completed high school – a 30-point improvement relative to Manitoba.
Bill C-33 is not a silver bullet for closing the gap between First Nation and non-Aboriginal education outcomes, but it is a major reform in the right direction. The opposition parties have yet to state their positions. In my opinion, Bill C-33 deserves broad Parliamentary support.