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Ottawa, chiefs agree to pursue wholesale reform of native education

The Conservative government and the Assembly of First Nations have agreed to pursue root-and-branch reform of the way on-reserve children are educated, hoping to reverse decades of failure.

"The stars are lined up to do exactly that," Indian and Northern Affairs Minister John Duncan said Thursday in an interview. The emerging consensus for reform involving both the federal and provincial governments and native chiefs "is quite extraordinary and unprecedented," he maintained.

Mr. Duncan and National Chief Shawn Atleo jointly announced Thursday that an expert panel will have until the middle of next year to come up with a new plan for on-reserve education that is standards-based, accountable and both culturally and regionally appropriate.

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The panel will examine emerging success stories in Atlantic Canada and elsewhere that suggest the cycle of educational failure and poverty that afflicts many reserves can be broken.

"A good education is one that is owned by the community, that includes being imbedded in culture and identity, that respects the retention of our languages, while accomplishing the education standards that are needed for our young people to succeed," Mr. Atleo said in an interview. "That's something we simply aren't experiencing."

"We're going to work together" with the federal government, he promised, to bring that calibre of education to native reserves.

Similar promises have been made in the past, and gone nowhere. Governments of all political stripes and chiefs of first nations across the country have been unable to reverse decades of failure in aboriginal education.

Sixty per cent of 113,000 students in 515 on-reserve schools will fail to complete high school, based on past experience, a figure that hasn't changed in decades even as the portion of the general population who failed to finish high school has declined steadily to 14 per cent. Fewer than 29,000 out of a native population of a million have university degrees.

Poor education contributes to the social breakdown that plagues many reserves, in turn making it harder for children to be properly educated.

Too often, federal funding for reserves arrives in block grants that are used for other purposes. Decades of abuse by teachers at residential schools left Indian parents deeply suspicious of what they saw as a policy of assimilation-through-education. The lack of Indian school boards in most provinces leaves each band isolated.

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But as the bitterness over the residential schools issue fades, an increasing number of chiefs have come to identify education reform as the most pressing need in their community.

And in the midst of overall failure, there have been islands of success. Education outcomes are improving among the Mi'Kmaq of Atlantic Canada, where the Nova Scotia government recently signed an agreement that imbeds first-nation cultural components within the curriculum of Mi'Kmaq schools under the direction of a native school board. British Columbia has also created a first nations education board, though funding fights are delaying its implementation.

"Times are changing," said Michael Mendelson, senior researcher at the Caledon Institute, a social policy think tank. There is a growing willingness, he said, by both the chiefs and the federal government to talk about wholesale reform of native education.

Both sides agree that such reforms must impose standards on students, teachers and communities, that native culture must be integral to the curriculum, and that the provinces, which are solely responsible for education for all other Canadians, must be heavily involved.

The panel, he said "is the signal that the federal government is ready to sit down and get to work" on on-reserve education reform, "and so is the AFN."

Given the volatility of the federal political scene, it's hard to predict when such reforms might actually be realized.

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For the 113,000 children in native schools, so many of whom are at risk, they can't come too soon.

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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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