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National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Shawn Atleo.

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS

It is time for the Assembly of First Nations, led by National Chief Shawn Atleo, to present a comprehensive response to the federal government's draft bill on aboriginal education. He can't just say "no." The AFN is making a mistake by rejecting the bill outright, and at the same time demanding complete control of schools on reserves and a "full statutory guarantee" of funding. If the AFN doesn't like what is on the table, it must present a realistic counterproposal.

The existing Indian Act barely mentions schools at all. It provides no framework; indeed, there is not even any requirement for universal and compulsory education.

Bernard Valcourt, the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs, issued the draft bill, called the First Nations Education Act, in October. On its face, it is remarkably flexible. It offers native communities the option of joining together to set up regional school boards, under the name of First Nation education authorities, allowing for economies of scale, a common curriculum and the hiring of administrators and other educational experts – in short, an apparatus that small communities cannot usually afford.

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What's more, the bill affirms that a whole range of existing arrangements will continue as before, under self-government agreements, agreements with provincial governments and so on. An individual band council can even simply preserve its separateness, with a very small staff and administration.

The AFN's suggestion that the bill amounts to a one-size-fits-all approach is simply not true. And the invocation of the horrific residential schools of the past is grossly unfair; the government's proposal is designed to enable primary and secondary education in First Nations communities, not to tear families apart.

It should go without saying that there needs to be give-and-take between Ottawa and the AFN. A comprehensive agreement must be negotiated; the government has said it could increase funding if an agreement can be reached, and it doesn't want to implement a new system without native consent. The AFN can push back against Ottawa's proposals, but it must do so with realistic ideas for improving native schools. The education of aboriginal children and youth is essential to this country's future prosperity.

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