Shawn Atleo, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, is feeling optimistic the Conservative government is ready to tackle the deep-rooted problems in native education.
Having discussed the issue in-depth for the first time Friday with new Indian Affairs Minister John Duncan, Mr. Atleo tells the Globe and Mail the minister assured him Prime Minister Stephen Harper supports a push for reform.
Mr. Atleo, who is also chancellor of Vancouver Island University, was elected national chief in the summer of 2009 partly on a platform to improve first nation education. He and others from the Assembly of First Nations are in Ottawa this week to push for a new approach.
The AFN chief discussed his plans in an interview Monday afternoon. The following is an edited and condensed version of that conversation.
What are you hoping to accomplish?
We’re hoping to break out of what some would refer to as a federally-imposed recession since 1996 due to the 2-per-cent cap that has impacted areas like education. Education is really a universal value amongst all peoples and all societies. We want to share this information with the country, really to compel change.
What needs to be done to improve first nation education results?
I think there seems to be a lot of misinformation. This week will be about clarifying the information. That gets to the point about what first nations are and are not receiving. I’ll give you one example: Even though about 60 per cent of first nation students go to first nation schools, a huge portion, a significant portion of the funds for education (which numbers $1.4-billion) actually goes to provincial schools. It’s an example of an area that very clearly first nation students are missing out.
Many high school kids in first-nation communities end up going to provincial, non-native high schools. So what’s the misunderstanding about money going to provinces?
It’s a matter of there being a lot of myths that there are adequate funds going to first nation students. It just simply is not the case and what’s also not well-known is that first nation education does not have any statutory guarantee. That 2-per-cent cap has been in place since 1996, so every year, even in this last budget, the federal government was under its worst fiscal constraints in recent history, and still federal transfers to both provinces and territories have been protected at 6-per-cent growth annually. So there’s a disparity that in education alone has now grown to about $2-billion.
What’s your sense, in your initial discussions with new Indian Affairs Minister John Duncan, as to what might be happening on this file from the federal government’s end?
On education, we had our first conversation really in a formal way this last Friday. The first sort of outcome of our conversation on Friday was the idea of developing jointly an approach on education and I think that’s an excellent place to start. He signaled some openness to doing exactly that. The pattern of governments designing approaches for first nations is a pattern that can and must be broken and so that’s what I’m hoping will not only come out of this week but out of my initial conversation with minister Duncan.
The Prime Minister is also willing to support the endorsement of the declaration of the rights of indigenous peoples, of which, there are several clauses in the declaration that speak to indigenous peoples being involved in designing their own education approaches. So you put these pieces together and it speaks to the idea of establishing an approach where first nations can jointly design an approach that leads to proper, sustainable transfers in the areas of education that are tied to real need, that are tied to population growth, so it’s not just about maintaining the status quo. And of course we’ve got the economic arguments to make – if we close the achievement gap, it would constitute a $179-billion contribution to Canada’s GDP.