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john ibbitson

The Harper government and the Assembly of First Nations are circling each other warily, while also watching their own backs.

Next week, Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan is expected to release the framework for public consultations on a forthcoming First Nations Education Act. The absence of such consultation is one reason that the AFN, which once supported the bill in principle, now opposes it.

But that opposition might not be total. Morley Googoo, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland regional chief for the AFN and point-man on the education file, met Thursday evening with Mr. Duncan to exchange views.

"We let them know that we were prepared to move forward with talking about education," he said afterward in an interview. "But there are barriers across the country that he needs to be aware of."

Indeed there are.

The bill, which is based on the results of a joint task force co-sponsored by Aboriginal Affairs and the AFN, is expected to promote the creation of regional native school boards. Individual band schools would be gathered into the boards, which would look after staffing, capital budgets and developing a native-centred curriculum.

At an AFN gathering Wednesday, a number of chiefs and interested observers held a closed-door meeting to canvas reaction to a draft action plan that aims to respond to the legislation. I was allowed to attend the meeting, provided I agreed not to identify the speakers or quote any of their remarks.

Most Prairie chiefs appear to be dead-set against the bill, full stop. Ottawa, in the opinion of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, has a treaty obligation – which it has violated – to fully and properly fund on-reserve schools at a level equal to their provincial counterparts. They don't need school boards, say these chiefs. They just need more money and to be left alone. It is no secret that Prairie chiefs (unsuccessfully) spearheaded opposition to National Chief Shawn Atleo's re-election, in part because they thought the Harper government had co-opted him on the education bill.

Other chiefs are not as seriously opposed. Some are desperate for increased education funding, and see the upcoming legislation as the only hope of getting any. Nova Scotia has created a native education system very similar to what the new act is expected to propose, and early results are encouraging. British Columbia has a similar agreement in principle, though things are hung up over funding.

In talking with the Conservatives, "we try to plow home that we recognize regional diversity," Mr. Googoo said. Which is necessary, given the lack of unity among the chiefs.

From Wednesday's gathering, and a reading of a preliminary report, it seems clear that three principles will dominate the AFN's approach to the bill:

1. First Nations are entitled to adequate and predictable funding that meets the needs of every native on reserve.

2. Any legislation that affects first nations education on reserve must have the consent of the chiefs before it can be introduced into Parliament, much less passed by it.

3. The preservation of native culture, especially native languages, must be at the heart of any native curriculum.

That first point is the biggest problem for the Conservatives. Not only is money tight as the government seeks to eliminate the deficit, many of the party's core supporters are impatient with band leaderships that sometimes divert education funding to other purposes, such as their own salaries, while endlessly playing the victim card. The Tory base will not welcome increased spending on native education without strings.

But it remains true that annual funding increases for native schools have been capped at 2 per cent since 1996. Provinces have been increasing funding for their public education systems at a far higher rate over that time. There is a serious gap between budgets for on-reserve schools and budgets for provincial public schools.

The Harper government, at least on its good days, agrees that closing the education gap between native and non-native students is both a moral imperative and a good business investment in an economy of growing labour shortages.

But the Conservatives are demanding greater accountability for how that money is spent. That is why they are legislating salary disclosures for band councils, and property rights for band residents. And it is why, according to Chief Googoo, Mr. Duncan reiterated the government's determination at the meeting to press ahead with the bill, whether or not it receives the AFN's support. (Mr. Duncan's office did not respond to requests for an interview.)

Most likely, the AFN will end up opposing the Conservative legislation. Most likely, it will pass anyway. Most likely, some native communities will agree to merge resources and establish the boards in exchange for more money. Most likely, many others won't.

So half a loaf, or maybe only a third. Is it better than none? That's a poignant question.