The Conservative government’s efforts to create a new blueprint for First Nations education are crumbling as native leaders in many parts of the country reject an agreement reached in February between Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the head of the Assembly of First Nations.
Chiefs from Labrador to Saskatchewan say the nearly $2-billion in new money Mr. Harper promised in exchange for their support of a proposed law governing on-reserve education is too little and will come too late. And they say the terms accepted by Shawn Atleo, the National Chief of the AFN, would give the federal government too much control over how native education is delivered.
The widespread denunciation of the proposed First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act suggests the long-standing problems plaguing native schools, where graduation rates far lag behind those of the rest of Canada, did not end with the deal announced by Mr. Harper and Mr. Atleo in Alberta on Feb. 7.
It also points to a disconnect between the National Chief and those leaders who accuse him, not for the first time, of leaving them in the dark.
“This is an announcement that came out of left field. Here is Shawn Atleo, again walking into a joint announcement and First Nations had no briefing, we had no level of discussion or preparation,” said Isadore Day, Chief of the Serpent River First Nation in Northern Ontario, who has previously criticized Mr. Atleo for meeting in private with Mr. Harper.
The government has promised an extra $1.9-billion for First Nations education over seven years, starting with $120-million in 2015-16. Some of that would pay for core education and some for the construction and repair of schools. Importantly, it would replace a cap on increases for First Nations education of 2 per cent annually that has been in place since 1996 with an escalator of 4.5 per cent, starting in 2019.
But the money is contingent on passage of the act, which has yet to be unveiled. The act will require First Nations schools to meet standards that are consistent with those run by the provinces, will create attendance requirements for students and will require teachers to be properly certified.
Mr. Day questions why the government is waiting until 2016 – after the next federal election – to distribute the cash. “I really feel that, if the Conservative government really wanted to make a difference now, they would have put their money where their mouth is now, not in 2016,” Mr. Day said. Cuts to other First Nations programs mean the government is just playing a “shell game” when it promises more money for schools, he said.
The government says the new act adheres to demands Mr. Atleo made in a letter in the fall to Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt – demands that were reiterated in a resolution approved by chiefs across the country in December at an assembly in Gatineau, Que. They include First Nations control over their children’s education, a guarantee of adequate funding, a commitment to promote First Nations languages and education, no unilateral oversight for the government, and meaningful engagement in the future.
Not all chiefs reject the agreement.
“I think it’s important to take it for what it is – an opportunity for First Nations communities to move forward from the status quo,” said Morley Googoo, the head of the AFN chiefs committee on education.
A request for comment from Mr. Atleo was referred to Chief Joe Miskokomon of the Chippewas of the Thames First Nation in Southwestern Ontario, who said he “definitely” supports the deal.
“For the first time,” Mr. Miskokomon said, “we will be able to put our own language and culture into the curriculum, which is significant in terms of raising our children with a balanced viewpoint of who they are and where they come from and where they would be going through our own philosophies and values and so on.”
But it is not difficult to find a chief who is opposed. The Mohawks of Kahnawake say on their website that the bill “is paternalistic and top-down in its approach.” The Ontario Chiefs say the money offered for infrastructure “would not even meet the needs of First Nations in Ontario, let alone all of the First Nations in Canada.”
And First Nations in Quebec have asked the Federal Court to determine whether the government is meeting its duty to consult with them as it drafts the bill.
Ghislain Picard, the AFN regional chief for Quebec and Labrador, said his people are “very much puzzled” about what Mr. Harper and Mr. Atleo announced and what it means for them. “If there is to be, as the government says, a more inclusive process from the announcement until the act is introduced, when does that happen, how does that happen?” Mr. Picard said.
Vice-Chief Bobby Cameron of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations said he was expecting an injection of at least $4-billion or $5-billion. “Then they go on to say the funding won’t happen for two more years,” he said. By his calculations, the average annual funding for each First Nations student would still be thousands of dollars behind those in the rest of Canada.
Nor does Mr. Cameron agree with the level of control the government wants over First Nations communities in exchange for the cash. “Being an educator myself in my First Nations community,” he said, “I don’t want to be dictated as to what I can teach in school, what curriculum, or even the hours of our school or anything.”
Derek Nepinak, the Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, said First Nations leaders have resoundingly rejected any notion of a federal legislative framework on First Nations education.
“I think each and every chief in Manitoba is going to be supportive of seeing new money put into play for improving educational outcomes for our young people,” Mr. Nepinak said. “What we won’t support,” he said, “is the trade-off between money and the treaty rights or the treaty jurisdiction on education. And that’s what we believe is going to surface once the new draft legislation is out for everybody to see.”