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Children to pay price for native education reform shambles

The Harper government is determined to push forward with a new first nations education act despite the opposition of native chiefs.

But the act will almost certainly be boycotted by most first nations leaders across the country, even if it does become law.

All sides bear responsibility for this shambles. Native children will pay the price.

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The Harper government is committed to having a native education reform act in place in time for the beginning of the 2014 school year. Reform is desperately needed: On-reserve high-school graduation rates are less than half that of the non-aboriginal population.

Yet another generation of native youth faces a life without a decent education or income, poorly housed and in poor health.

The new act, which has yet to be revealed, is to be based on the recommendations of a task force jointly sponsored by the federal government and the Assembly of First Nations.

The task force, chaired by YMCA president Scott Haldane, recommended the creation of a modern native education system centred on regional or provincial native school boards, properly funded and equipped with a curriculum that meets provincial education standards while also embracing aboriginal cultures and languages.

Earlier this month, the AFN withdrew support for the bill, citing the Harper government's refusal to consult with the chiefs before introducing it.

"Once again, the government is deciding what's best for us," protested Nova Scotia and Newfoundland regional chief Morley Googoo, who holds the education portfolio on the AFN executive.

The chiefs fear the government will impose the new school boards with scant respect for the linguistic and cultural diversity of the more than 600 first nations communities.

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The chiefs now plan to draw up their own set of expectations based on treaty rights and claims.

"First nations control of first nations education" must be the overriding principle, said Chief Googoo in an interview. "Unilateral legislation without us having a say would be totally unacceptable."

For some chiefs, protecting native control over education trumps all other considerations. The legacy of the residential schools debacle, and an ingrained suspicion of Western education as a tool of assimilation, has left them determined to keep on-reserve education in the hands of the reserve leadership.

Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan said in a statement the government remains committed to working with "willing first nation partners."

The native schools boards were always intended to be voluntary. Even if the AFN boycotts the new legislation, the government is hoping some native communities will agree to work within the new rules, probably in exchange for increased funding.

Neither side appears to be acting in good faith. Complete rejection of the new legislation before it even sees the light of day betrays the AFN's original commitment to working with the Harper government, and probably reflects internal tensions as much as anger at Tory high-handedness.

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But for the Conservatives to simply slap a draft bill in front of the AFN leadership and expect sign-off, perhaps after a few cosmetic amendments, ignores political reality, and guarantees rejection.

All of which leaves Mr. Haldane deeply disappointed. His panel, he pointed out in an interview, was premised on three key assumptions: 1) All sides must subordinate their own interests to the needs of the child; 2) The bill must be a "co-creation" of natives and government; 3) Both government and native leaders must accept responsibility for the success of a new on-reserve education system.

"It appears neither side has been able to embrace those principles to the point where we can get something in place that will help first nation kids obtain a better education," he said in an interview.

For all sides, he pointedly observed, "not working together is not in the best interests of a native child."

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About the Author

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More


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