The Harper government is proposing to give control of education to First Nations in a sweeping overhaul of the education system that will provide nearly $2-billion in stable funding and set minimum education standards for aboriginal students.
Shawn Atleo, the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, described the proposed package, announced by the Prime Minister on Friday at a high school on the Blood Reserve in Alberta, as having the potential to be "transformative."
This shows that the federal government "recognized First Nations control," the National Chief told The Globe, adding this will "get the minister out of our life."
"I heard a willingness to go in that direction," he said, suggesting this plan will take the government out of their education system. "It's an important step forward when the government is prepared to put resources on the table that will lead toward sustainable, equitable … predictable funding that is no longer just lurching from year to year."
Education on reserves is a fraught with problems in many parts of the country. Aboriginal students graduate at lower rates than non-aboriginal students. In Nova Scotia, however, First Nations have self-government in education and their high-school students in some communities graduate at higher rates than the provincial average.
There is still a lot of work to be done, noted Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt. These proposals must be still drafted into legislation . Mr. Valcourt told The Globe the hope is to have full implementation by 2016.
The package contains a pledge by government for core funding of $1.25-billion over three years. This is to begin in 2016-17. There is a provision for a 4.5-per-cent annual increase. In addition, $500-million has been allocated over seven years, beginning in 2015-16, for infrastructure, and there is a $160-million implementation fund beginning also in 2015-16.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has made reforming the education system for First Nations a priority of his government. The agreement comes after months of difficult negotiations with First Nations leaders.
Mr. Atleo and other First Nation leaders rejected a draft bill released this past November, and laid out five conditions they wanted met before they would agree to changes. The conditions included control of their own education system; stable funding; protection of language and culture; fair consultation; and proper oversight of the new system.
Friday's announcement addresses the conditions, Mr. Atleo said.
In addition to the promised funding, the agreement with the Assembly of First Nations calls for First Nations schools to teach a core curriculum "that meets or exceeds provincial standards"; students must meet minimum attendance standards; teachers must be properly certified; and the schools must "award widely recognized diplomas and certificates."
These requirements do not currently exist, according to the background information provided by the government. It says that First Nations students sometimes graduate from on-reserve schools but do not have a "recognizable" diploma or certificate .
There is also a symbolic aspect to the proposals. The package repeals provisions in the Indian Act that relate to residential schools. Mr. Valcourt explained that the act, which is viewed by most First Nations as paternalistic and outdated, still contains provisions for the federal government to build residential schools.
"I'm proud to be the minister who is going to preside over its demise and take it out of the Indian Act," he said.