The Conservative government is promising new funding for schools on reserves, as it struggles to overcome native resistance to a proposed First Nations education act.
But unless the chiefs can see their way clear to supporting the proposed changes, the government is warning it will abandon the effort entirely.
"I can confirm that indeed our government intends to invest new funds in K-12 education on reserve once a new legislative framework is passed," Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt told The Globe and Mail in an interview Monday. But the government will not table legislation without support, he added. "We will not impose anything on someone who doesn't want it."
Under the current system, Ottawa sends money to band governments, which operate schools on reserves. But with scarce funding, competing priorities and an entrenched suspicion of education being a tool of assimilation, First Nations schools are often far inferior to their provincially funded counterparts. About 60 per cent of on-reserve students fail to complete high school.
Former prime minister Paul Martin, who studies and advocates for First Nations issues, estimates that the gap between funding for First Nations students and the actual requirements, bearing in mind the challenges of remote locations and special-needs students in many cases, is in the range of $2,000 to $3,000 per pupil, for an on-reserve student population of 110,000. The Ontario government has estimated that closing the funding gap between provincial schools and on-reserve schools would require an additional $100-million in federal funding for that province alone.
But the minister would not specify how much additional funding might be available. "Until we have a framework in place and we know what we're talking about, why throw figures in the air?" he replied, when asked about the scope of the additional funding.
The new act, a draft proposal of which has been posted on the ministry website for several weeks, would allow bands to pool resources and create First Nations education authorities, similar to provincial school boards. Chiefs and councils could also contract out responsibility for on-reserve education to a provincial government or private entities.
But many chiefs boycotted a consultation process leading up to the bill, saying it was yet another attempt by Ottawa to control native education, in the wake of the abuses of the residential school system.
In a letter last week to the minister, Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo said the draft legislation "is not acceptable to First Nations." He set out conditions for support that included complete First Nations control over education, embedding First Nations languages and culture within the curriculum and, most important, increased funding.
Mr. Valcourt suggested that those conditions could largely be met through negotiations with First Nations leaders.
"The desire for change runs deep, it is urgent, and it shared by students, educators, parents and chiefs," he said. But "the proposal has been hijacked in some areas for political reasons, mostly on the issue of funding," which is one reason he was prepared to promise the funding increase in advance of the legislation passing.
The lack of specifics on funding increases has led First Nation leaders to question why they would agree to a new education system without knowing whether there will be money to pay for it.
And while "of course money is the big issue across the country," Morley Googoo, head of the AFN chiefs committee on education, said Monday in a telephone interview, there are many other concerns, including a lack of proper consultation and the power Ottawa would retain to intervene in schools without taking responsibility for them.
The government's strategies "have been all over the place, unfortunately," Mr. Googoo said.
The federal funding promise comes as a schism threatens to undermine the authority of the Assembly of First Nations. Even as the chiefs gather in Ottawa this week for AFN meetings, dissident leaders are promoting a new National Treaty Alliance, which would take a more confrontational approach in relations between First Nations and the federal government.
The dissident chiefs have essentially boycotted the consultations leading up to the proposed act, leaving Mr. Atleo with a difficult choice.
He can negotiate with Mr. Valcourt for more money for, and say in, on-reserve education, knowing that will further weaken his position among chiefs who oppose the education bill. Or he can stand with the bills' opponents, which would almost certainly kill the bill, wasting years of efforts to improve the quality of education on reserves and consigning another generation of First Nations children to an inadequate education and all that follows from it.