Skip to main content

Assembly of First Nations Chief Shawn Atleo. REUTERS/Chris Wattie (CANADA - Tags: POLITICS)CHRIS WATTIE/Reuters

When Shawn Atleo was elected national chief of the Assembly of First Nations in 2009, he ran on a platform that emphasized education as a priority. In his own words, that meant "better graduation rates, better schools, more postsecondary students and, simply, more opportunity for our young people to achieve their goals."

These goals are not controversial – not even among First Nations leaders. Everyone recognizes the bleakness of the status quo. Everyone agrees that without fundamental change, Canada risks failing yet another generation of native children. Everyone agrees native communities must achieve better than a 60-per-cent high school failure rate for students in on-reserve high schools, a figure that hasn't shifted for more than 30 years.

But when it comes to figuring out how to undo this shameful status quo, the consensus falls apart. The only legitimate goal – improving the educational outcomes of native children – tends to get upstaged by infighting among native leaders and with Ottawa. Some harken back to the days of residential schools, others complain of being "shut out" of consultations. Canada's provincial governments – with experience and expertise administering nearly all of Canada's primary and secondary schools – stand on the sidelines. They don't dare delve into this mess. Can you blame them? The native education file has been a showcase of missed opportunities, recriminations, dithering and dysfunction. Who suffers? Native children.

But now there's a narrow window of opportunity for change in the form of the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act, introduced in Parliament earlier this month. The bill is far from perfect, but it represents the best crack in a generation at giving more native children a shot at success in school, and, by extension, life.

Mr. Atleo, who holds a master of education degree, has offered his cautious approval of the bill. He should be applauded for this. Instead, he's getting blow-back from many native leaders whose opposition threatens to derail the proposed legislation, which essentially sets minimum standards and secure funding levels for on-reserve schools.

Mr. Atleo's tentative support of the bill is "frustrating," said Vice-Chief Bobby Cameron of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations. He complains Mr. Atleo's backing of the legislation puts him in "a really difficult position because the majority of us are saying 'Atleo, spread the message, send our message to Harper that we oppose this education act.'" Ava Hill, the Chief of the Six Nations of the Grand River, felt betrayed: "The National Chief has always said his job was to kick open the door and let us in," she said. "I am waiting for this to happen." Manitoba Chief Derek Nepinak says the new legislation is a continuation of an "assimilation agenda."

Let's hope Mr. Atleo recognizes this kind of criticism for what it is: a tired regurgitation of excuses for inaction, which, if given credence, would pave the road right back to square one. It bears remembering that Bill C-33 did not drop out of the clear blue sky. Unlike other legislation proposed by the Harper government (Fair Elections Act, anyone?), it is the end result of a long process started in 2010. That's four years' worth of of national panels, engagement, reports, consultations, discussion, blueprints for discussion, draft legislative proposal and open letters.

The bill itself boils down to two things: standards and money. Native groups want Ottawa to commit new cash to education, and that's what Ottawa has promised: at least $1.9-billion. The new money will begin to flow in 2016. The federal government also wants on-reserve schools to hold themselves to higher standards. The AFN is committed to moving in that direction. The bill would create a joint council of up to nine educational professionals – appointed on the recommendation of the minister of aboriginal affairs – to oversee education on reserves and help write regulations. All First Nations schools would be required to be staffed with certified teachers. Students graduating from these schools would be on par with their peers from provincial high schools. Each First Nation would have to hire an inspector to ensure the standards are met and report to the joint council. If a particular school showed stubborn dysfunction, the council could recommend the minister appoint a temporary administrator.

Without the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act, we are left with a vacuum. The Indian Act makes almost no mention of schools. That leaves most Native students choosing between two bad options: attending an on-reserve school, where chances are they won't graduate – or going to a provincial high school off reserve, where they are likely to receive a better education, but may also be far away from their families and in institutions with no native connection.

Mr. Atleo was elected national chief for good reasons. His commitment to education is one of them. It's time for him to remind those who elected him of his original mandate. He argues Bill C-33 is not a substitute for self-government, and he's right. He rightly sees it as "a bridge" that will assist First Nations to ultimately assume greater control of their community's education systems. Improving educational outcomes among native children is essential to reaching that goal. Better graduation rates and better schools on reserves are essential to nurturing the native leaders of tomorrow. Without Bill C-33, another generation of native children will be stranded on a bridge to nowhere.