The federal government and the Assembly of First Nations, represented by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and National Chief Shawn Atleo, announced a promising agreement on aboriginal education on Friday, at Stand Off, Alta. The name of the bill yet to be drafted is almost satirical: the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act – just in case you didn't quite catch what it's about the first time. But the fulfilment of the agreement's goals will be an immense task.
The agreement is essentially about standards and money. Native groups want more money for education – and that's what Ottawa has promised, to the tune of $1.9-billion. The federal government wants higher education standards for native schools – and the AFN has agreed to small but meaningful steps on that score.
Schools on reserves and in other aboriginal communities are to have a core curriculum equal to those in provincial systems, with teachers who have provincial certificates. Students will have to attend school at least some minimum numbers of days. Their high-school diplomas are supposed to be good enough that prospective employers can take them at face value. There will be some standards, but the Assembly of First Nations emphasizes that there will be "no unilateral federal oversight."
A previous draft bill, presented by Bernard Valcourt, the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs, met with widespread opposition, largely because it was not clear how much more money the government would provide. Ottawa is now promising new funding to the tune of almost $1.9-billion, starting in 2015.
And then there's what isn't in this agreement. The truth is that more provincial involvement in native education would be a huge positive. Education is a provincial matter, and provinces have most of the country's education expertise. Most native students already choose to attend provincial schools, but many live too far away to do so. Provincial governments have no incentive to take over native education, and the Constitution assigns native affairs to Ottawa. All of which leads to a less than perfect outcome: the two levels of government with the least expertise in education, negotating an education agreement that largely sidelines the level of government with constitutional responsibility for education.
No, it's not perfect. But the Stand Off agreement is a step forward. And the ball is now in the court of native governments. Native education is still largely to be run by native communities. It is up to them to improve failing schools.