Reserve schools would immediately get more money if the Liberals are elected, says party Leader Justin Trudeau, who pledges to eliminate the cap on federal transfers to First Nations, imposed 19 years ago under a previous Liberal government, that chiefs blame for the poor quality of their children's education.
Mr. Trudeau, who was campaigning in Saskatoon on Thursday, also promised that a Liberal government would begin "respectful and inclusive nation-to-nation" negotiations with First Nations leaders with the aim of reviving the Kelowna Accord. That deal, reached in 2005 under then-Liberal prime minister Paul Martin, would have provided billions of dollars for education, housing, health and other indigenous social programs, but it was scrapped when the Conservatives took power the following year.
"I believe that all children have the right to a high-quality education. Unfortunately, in Canada, that's not how things are," Mr. Trudeau told supporters. "First Nations students are falling behind in reading, writing and numeracy, and less than half of all First Nations students on reserves graduate from high school. Canadians know that that's just not right."
After nearly two decades of a 2-per-cent cap on spending increases, the Assembly of First Nations says the annual, base, per-student funding is thousands of dollars below that in the rest of Canada.
As part of lifting that cap, Mr. Trudeau said a Liberal government would make an immediate new investment of $515-million in core annual funding for First Nations primary and secondary education, increasing to $750-million over four years. He also promised to spend $500-million in education infrastructure on reserves and to invest $50-million more per year in postsecondary funding for First Nations students.
The Liberal Leader did not directly respond to questions about where the money would come from. "I've said very clearly that the Liberal Party is committed to balance the budget, but how long it takes to do that depends on the size of the mess that Mr. Harper has left behind," he said.
A party spokesman said in an e-mail that a full fiscal plan would be released later in the campaign.
The Conservatives have had a difficult time implementing changes to on-reserve education.
Their so-called First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act caused the resignation of the previous AFN national chief after his support of the legislation put him offside with the majority of chiefs across Canada, who said it would give too much control to the Aboriginal Affairs Minister.
That legislation officially died with the election call, leaving unspent most of the $1.9-billion that the government had offered for First Nations education on the condition that the act be endorsed and passed into law.
Perry Bellegarde, National Chief of the AFN, applauded Mr. Trudeau's proposals and called on the other party leaders to make similar commitments.
"He's talking about a respectful process. There's no unilateral imposition of any directive from government," Mr. Bellegarde said. "That's a positive step forward."
Although the voter turnout among aboriginal people has traditionally been low, the AFN says the First Nations vote could make a difference in 51 ridings, and Mr. Bellegarde and other chiefs are urging their people to go to the polls to force federal politicians to pay attention to their concerns.
"More and more people are starting to realize that our issues matter, that our voices matter and that our vote can count," Mr. Bellegarde said. "And I think they are starting to embrace that dialogue about getting involved on Oct. 19."
In addition to the investments in education, Mr. Trudeau is promising to work with the survivors of Indian residential schools, as well as provinces and territories, to ensure that the contributions indigenous people have made to Canada are included in school curriculum across the country. And he says he will provide substantial new funding to support the ability of First Nations to promote, preserve and enhance their languages and cultures.