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Assembly of First Nations Chief Shawn Atleo at his office in Ottawa. DAVE CHAN for The Globe and Mail

Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

The head of Canada's largest aboriginal group says legislation proposed by the federal government to improve the dismal outcomes of First Nations schools is inadequate and "unacceptable."

Shawn Atleo, the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, wrote to Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt on Monday to set out five conditions that must be met before native people will support the government's proposals for changing the way reserve schools are operated and funded.

In that letter, Mr. Atleo said the government must give First Nations control over their children's education; there must be a guarantee of adequate funding; there must be a commitment to promote First Nations languages and education; the government cannot assume it will provide unilateral oversight; and there must be meaningful engagement going forward.

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"We see it [the legislation] as being a real threat and an effort to, in essence, offload liability for what is a key federal obligation" to support First Nations education, Mr. Atleo said.

"A new approach is required," Mr. Atleo said in a telephone interview with The Globe and Mail. "There is also a sense that we've got to get this right for the kids and we've got to do this now. It's not about punting it down the road."

The urgency is reinforced by the fact that just 38 per cent of First Nations people living on reserve between the ages of 18 and 24 have completed high school, compared with 87 per cent for the non-aboriginal population.

The First Nations Education Act angered native leaders from the moment it was tabled in the House of Commons last month. Chiefs complained that the consultation had been inadequate, that the bill did not give them enough control over education in their communities, and that it promised only that the funding issue would be dealt with in regulations at some future date.

Mr. Atleo said Mr. Valcourt has hinted that he would be willing to pull the legislation off the table if there was not enough support from the First Nations.

Mr. Valcourt's spokeswoman, Erica Meekes, would not confirm that the minister is prepared to see the bill scrapped. Instead, she said government officials continue to hold discussions and consultations on the proposal across the country, and there is no deadline to provide feedback.

"Money alone will not improve on-reserve education or the outcomes of First Nation students," Ms. Meekes said. "Study after study has said that we must put in place a system of education which gives First Nation students the same legislative base, rights and opportunities as all other students in this country."

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But an assurance about money is a central demand of the First Nations who argue that their schools have been underfunded and falling further behind provincial schools every year since 1996.

The RCMP documents released last week about the $90,000 paid by Nigel Wright, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's former chief of staff, to cover living expenses claimed improperly by disgraced Senator Mike Duffy, included a memo from Mr. Wright to Mr. Harper complaining about Conservative senators who were not following "government messaging and direction."

Included in the off-message actions cited by Mr. Wright were reports from the Conservative-dominated Senate that "call on the government to … invest heavily in aboriginal education."

Mr. Atleo said the documents highlight the fact that even the senators appointed by the Conservative government are aware that First Nations education is seriously underfunded.

Carolyn Bennett, the aboriginal affairs critic for the Liberals, said the documents show what the Conservative government really thinks about equitable funding for First Nations schools.

"This peek behind the scenes of the Conservative machine," said Ms. Bennett, "underscores why we cannot trust Minister Valcourt when he says we should just pass government legislation reforming First Nations education without any money attached and trust that 'funding will follow.' "

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