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Former prime minister Paul Martin receives a gift of sweetgrass and a drum from National Chief Perry Bellegarde after addressing the Assembly of First Nations congress, Thursday, July 9, 2015 in Montreal.Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

As the Conservative government's attempt to reform on-reserve education waits to die on the order paper, First Nations leaders are being urged to persuade Canadians they need more control over their schools than the proposed law allowed – and much more money to go along with it.

The First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act, which was put on ice after most chiefs said it would give too much control to the Aboriginal Affairs Minister, will be gone when the election is called later this summer. Its demise will leave unspent most of the $1.9-billion the government offered for First Nations education on the condition that the legislation be endorsed and passed into law.

With the country preparing to go to the polls, former Liberal prime minister Paul Martin says it is time for the First Nations to make a public case for more education funding.

"Set out your own plan for successful education in a strong and united voice: a plan that explains why the First Nations must control their children's education, a plan that will show Canadians how you will run the system, a plan that stresses the importance of languages and culture and a plan that is at the top end of maths, sciences, geography, history and literature," Mr. Martin told chiefs on Thursday, the final day of the three-day annual general meeting of the Assembly of First Nations.

The dropout rate on reserves is nearly 60 per cent, and after two decades of a 2-per-cent cap on spending increases, the base per-student funding has fallen well behind the rest of Canada.

When Canadians hear that 40 per cent less education funding is dedicated to six-year-olds living on reserve than six-year-olds who attend a non-reserve school 10 kilometres away, they are morally outraged, Mr. Martin said.

Ghislain Picard, the AFN's regional chief for Quebec and Labrador, who was one of the first to reject the legislation proposed by the government, offered a similar message to that of Mr. Martin at a special session on education on Thursday morning.

With an election coming in October, it is time to lobby the general public, Mr. Picard said. "Because of misconceptions, because of the lack of good will, we will need to once again make a case for education."

The First Nations, he said, are open to reform, "but one has to understand that it shouldn't be one-sided, as we have seen in the last year, with the government saying that this is the way to go and you either follow or you don't, and if you don't, there are consequences."

The First Nations say their students succeed when schools are controlled by their communities and they are taught in their own language and enveloped by their culture.

Bart Jack, a member of the First Nations board of education in Sheshatshiu in Labrador, told the AFN meeting that, between the 1960s and 2009, when non-aboriginal boards ran the education system, no more than 10 children from his community and neighbouring Natuashish completed high school. But since 2009, when the First Nations took control of education in those communities, 39 students have graduated from high school and a number have gone on to postsecondary education.

Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt insists the legislation he tabled last year would have ensured quality education on reserves along with a guaranteed funding escalator. And, he said in an e-mail, the government has made major investments in reserve school infrastructure and reforms that go well beyond the funding cap.

Complaints about the shortage of money for First Nations schools are "pretty rich coming from Paul Martin, as he is the one who placed [the] cap on all funding transfers to First Nations – including for education, as Liberal finance minister" in 1996, Mr. Valcourt wrote.

But Mr. Martin said the Kelowna Accord, which he negotiated with the First Nations when he was prime minister in 2005, would have lifted the cap. The Conservative government abandoned the accord.

"Will the funding that's required to bring First Nations education to its proper level be costly?" he asked. "Of course it will in the short term. But it will be a heck of a lot less costly than what we see today when young lives are wasted. The question to ask is: What's the cost of not doing it? What's the cost of denying a young person a decent shot at life?"

Editor's Note: A story about former Prime Minister Paul Martin in Friday's paper said the Kelowna Accord was signed in 1995. It was signed in 2005.

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