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The remains of a Canadian flag can be seen flying over a building in Attawapiskat, Ont., on Nov. 29, 2011. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)
The remains of a Canadian flag can be seen flying over a building in Attawapiskat, Ont., on Nov. 29, 2011. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Attawapiskat exposes urgent need for native education reforms Add to ...

Sooner or later – actually, sooner – the politicians and the reporters and the Red Cross will leave Attawapiskat, the temporary fixes will run out or run down, and things will return to the old, awful, normal.

Any hope for real change will depend on whether two reports coming out over the next few weeks succeed in convincing the Harper government that the time has come for powerful reform of native education.

As with so many other reserves, the schools at Attawapiskat, a remote reserve on the edge of James Bay in Northern Ontario, are bare bones and run down. Lousy or non-existent schools are part, though only part, of the reason why 60 per cent of status Indian children never finish high school.

Native education in Canada is simply a string of disasters. There’s no need here to recite again the ills of the residential schools system; its replacement – on-reserve schools funded by Ottawa and run by local band councils – haven’t done much better.

This is more than a tragedy; it’s a waste, since half of all native Canadians are under 25, while the rest of Canada is growing older and in need of skilled young workers.

But a new way of educating natives on reserves is gaining increasing attention. In Nova Scotia and British Columbia, native school boards are pooling resources, supervising on-reserve schools and overseeing a curriculum that meets provincial standards while also emphasizing native languages, culture and history. These native school boards are starting to deliver promising results.

An education panel jointly commissioned by the Harper government and the Assembly of First Nations is expected to recommend similar boards across the country when it reports in the first week of February.

The Senate aboriginal affairs committee will release its own report in December. The senators have been talking to the same people that the education panel has been talking to, and are expected to reach a similar conclusion.

Shawn Atleo, National Chief of the AFN, is convinced that comprehensive national education reform is crucial to breaking the cycle of native poverty.

“We really do need some sort of transformation,” he said in an interview Tuesday. “We need to smash the status quo.”

Mr. Atleo is meeting Stephen Harper later this week to discuss the situation at Attawapiskat.

But the crucial meeting will come next year when the Prime Minister meets with aboriginal leaders.

Mr. Harper has let it be known that he is prepared to put new money into native education, but only if he can be convinced it will deliver results.

There is a window here. The misery of Attawapiskat has refocused attention on the desperate need to break the spiral of aboriginal poverty, poor health and educational failure.

Beyond the moral urgency is cold-blooded logic: Canada simply can’t afford to waste the labour potential of an educated native workforce.

Decent on-reserve schools, properly equipped and staffed with high-quality teachers, supported by professional school boards that employ a rigorous but culturally appropriate curriculum: If the Conservatives spent real money to make even some of that possible, it would be Nixon going to China and then some.

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Follow on Twitter: @JohnIbbitson

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