The organization that represents Canada's First Nations is asking provinces and territories to help native communities develop their own education systems in ways that will lead to better outcomes for their children.
First Nations education is the responsibility of the federal government. But Shawn Atleo, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said Wednesday there is widespread agreement that the existing system is a failure.
Mr. Atleo told provincial premiers gathered in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., for their annual summer meeting that the First Nations want control over their own education systems. But that does not mean there is no role for the provinces and territories, he said.
In addressing education, and violence against aboriginal women and girls, "there's no reason why provinces can't work directly with First Nations to achieve responses to these [problems] and have actions happen now," Mr. Atleo told The Globe and Mail after his discussions with the premiers.
The AFN asked the premiers to adopt a statement in favour of specific targets of a 10-per-cent improvement in First Nations high-school graduation rates over the next four years and parity with the rest of Canada by 2025. The high-school graduation rate among native youth is currently averaging just 36 per cent, compared with 72 per cent for the rest of Canada.
The AFN also wants all provinces and territories to offer at least three additional First Nations-language immersion programs in the schools within their jurisdictions by 2017. These would be open to both native and non-native students, Mr. Atleo said.
In addition, the AFN says the provinces could help the First Nations with programs to induce teachers to work – and stay working – at reserve schools, to help build First Nations curriculums and standards, and to set up inter-jurisdictional exchanges that would assist in the sharing of expertise.
There are already examples in New Brunswick, British Columbia and elsewhere where collaboration between the provinces and the First Nations has led to dramatic improvements in indigenous education, Mr. Atleo said.
Chiefs who attended an AFN meeting in the Yukon last week unanimously opposed a blueprint developed by the federal Conservative government for a new First Nation Education Act. They said the proposed act denies the importance of their languages and cultures, fails to affirm First Nations control over native education, and does not address a long-standing funding gap.
The federal government has capped yearly increases for First Nations education funding at 2 per cent since 1996 and provides about $7,000 per student compared with roughly $10,000 per student that the provinces provide to the schools within their jurisdictions.
"Federal government and control and oversight is not something First Nations accept," Mr. Atleo said. "First Nations are not going establish lower standards than exist elsewhere and have the ability to drive their own systems."
The 11 premiers who attended Wednesday's meeting all backed Mr. Atleo's push, Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger said.
Mr. Selinger suggested several programs provinces can use to boost graduation rates, including early childhood education, stay-in-school programs to help students at risk of dropping out and apprenticeship programs.
"We were all very supportive of that. All the premiers are very keen on increasing graduation rates," he said "We obviously want to work in partnership with First Nations, Métis communities, Inuit communities in our territories. We are all doing quite a lot already."
The AFN also called for action from the premiers on a wide range of other topics including economic development, housing, health care, a national disaster strategy to deal with issues such as floods. And the premiers agreed to support the AFN in its demand for a national inquiry into the large number of murdered or missing aboriginal girls and women.