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Assembly of First Nations Chief Shawn Atleo speaks during a news conference in Ottawa January 25, 2012.CHRIS WATTIE

The upcoming budget must deliver on the Conservatives' promises to put funding for reserve schools on a par with other provincial schools, former prime minister Paul Martin and Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo say.

Mr. Martin and Mr. Atleo separately urged the federal government to increase investments in First Nations education on Thursday. While the March 29 budget is expected to be austere, the AFN wants a $500-million commitment from Ottawa.

Their remarks follow a lamentable assessment by a federally-appointed education panel in its final report last month. Since 1996, federal increases in funding to reserve schools have been capped at two per cent, while the money Ottawa sends for provincially funded education has been increasing by six per cent annually.

"There is no excuse to wait beyond the next budget," Mr. Martin said. "The government's own panel on first nations education has reported and they made this their number one issue."

Mr. Martin's Liberal government reached a $5.1-billion series of agreements with the provinces and aboriginal leaders known as the Kelowna Accord that would have made education a priority. But the Conservatives scrapped the deal when they were elected in 2006.

The Assembly of First Nations now wants Ottawa to include a $500-million increase in education funding in this month's federal budget, arguing for a "systems-wide" approach that moves beyond the crisis management of the past. The AFN would like $60-million to $80-million to close the funding gap with another $200-million for teachers and curriculum development. The rest it would like earmarked to build 28 new schools and renovate many others.

"I think the Prime Minister understands the consequences for not moving on this," Mr. Atleo said in a meeting with The Globe and Mail's editorial board. "Not only because of the crises. There's a compelling economic imperative as well, [because of]an aging mainstream Canadian population. And the fastest-growing segment of the population in this country is First Nations young people."

Mr. Atleo noted that the squalor revealed late last year in Attawapiskat – which is finally about to get a new school – opened many Canadians' eyes, but added that attention is needed in communities across the country.

Many of the more than 500 reserve schools in Canada have problems ranging from black mould to a lack of reliable running water and access to basics like computers, libraries and special education. Experienced teachers often leave remote communities for better salaries off-reserve.

While Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan said in an e-mailed statement to The Globe that "it would be inappropriate to speculate on the contents of the federal budget." He implied the government would follow the national panel's recommendations.

"It will help to inform our way forward as we continue to work toward ensuring that First Nations students achieve the same educational outcomes as other Canadians," Mr. Duncan said.