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Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Bernard Valcourt speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.CHRIS WATTIE/Reuters

Native leaders across Canada are condemning the Harper government's proposal to dramatically reform education on First Nations reserves as a paternalistic plan created without proper consultation.

Even leaders in Nova Scotia – who have self-government in education and whose high-school students in some communities graduate at rates higher than the provincial average – say they would reject the proposals in First Nations Education Act, which is aimed at raising standards to break the cycle of poverty on many reserves.

Disapproval is also apparent in British Columbia, where years of negotiations led in 2012 to a tripartite agreement promising stable funding and support for language and cultural programs for First Nations education. The agreement expires in 2017. "It is now clear that Ottawa has no intention of renewing it," argued Tyrone McNeil, president of the First Nations Education Steering Committee. "It's a missed opportunity. The proposal is nothing but top-down and paternalistic."

Native leaders aren't alone in their criticisms. B.C. Education Minister Peter Fassbender has sent a letter to his federal counterpart to protest the changes, saying they ignore the collaborative efforts in his province that have led to improved education outcomes for aboriginal youth. "We've seen an increase in graduation rates here in British Columbia because of that collaborative effort. That's what we need to continue to do," he said in an interview.

Along with losing control, there is concern about funding. Peter Garrow, First Nation director for the Ontario Public School Boards' Association, says the overhaul "ignores the deep issues of systemic underfunding and does not address in any substantive way the issues of First Nations languages, cultures and ways of teaching and learning."

Education on reserves is still a problem in many parts of Canada. A report by the C.D. Howe Institute showed that nearly 50 per cent of aboriginal high-school students do not graduate; that rate is worst in Manitoba – 63 per cent.

The federal government is proposing to bring schools up to provincial standards through a number of reforms, including contracting out responsibility for education to the provincial school board or to a private company.

But what is sure to be contentious is that the government will decide the setting and enforcement of educational standards on reserve, including bringing in an outside inspector to review performance. Ottawa could temporarily take over the schools that do not meet the standards. It has set a tight deadline of having the reforms in place for the 2014 school year.

Nova Scotia native leaders argue the success of their students – 87.7 per cent graduated last spring – is the result of having jurisdiction over their own education system. "This is a home-built solution," said Darren Googoo, director of education for Membertou Mi'kmaw nation in Cape Breton. "These are First Nations coming together and deciding what is right for their students."

Nova Scotia Mi'kmaw communities have two decades of experience with their education system after legislation passed in the mid-1990s returned jurisdiction to nine of them. John Paul, executive director of the Atlantic Policy Congress, which focuses on policy for First Nation communities, said "control has to be done by our own people for it to work and produce desired results."

The curriculum they have developed takes a little from the provincial curriculum but has a strong emphasis on outdoor education, Mi'kmaw language and early numeracy skills, Mr. Googoo says.

"We believe that is important for our children to develop a strong identity, especially at the elementary level to carry them through their secondary experience," he said. "They develop their identity in our school, we strengthen it. Basically we are trying to make it bulletproof so when they enter the provincial system they are able to achieve the potential that they demonstrated."

With reports from John Ibbitson and Gloria Galloway in Ottawa

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