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Students attending Attawapiskat's elementary school are photographed during a protest to raise awareness of appalling conditions at the school.

As Canada marks the 250th anniversary of the British Royal Proclamation, Ottawa is poised to act on one of the most urgent issues facing aboriginal Canadians today: education. The First Nations Education Act, set to be tabled when Parliament resumes, is a crucial first step toward improving the dismal high school graduation rates among aboriginal Canadians and is long overdue.

Nearly 40 per cent of aboriginal Canadians didn't finish high school. On reserves, the problem is worse, with roughly 60 per cent failing to graduate, a number that has remained stagnant for years. The reasons are complex, but low graduation rates among aboriginals affect us all. The federal government rightly recognizes it as a persistent drag on Canada's economy. Boosting these rates could not only alleviate looming labour shortages, but it could also drive broader social change on reserves.

Unfortunately, some aboriginal groups are opposing such a bill – even before it has seen the light of day – complaining that they haven't been properly consulted. Ottawa should redouble its efforts to engage these groups; native chiefs should debate, rather than dismiss this bill. Ultimately, those that will suffer most from inaction are native children, and there is no doubt that reform of the current system is desperately needed.

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The blueprint for the First Nations Education Act is currently vague. Any legislation should include at least three components to bring about positive change. First, on-reserve schools should be fairly and reliably funded to bring them on-par with their provincial counterparts. As it stands, the federal government has capped annual funding increases for native schools at two per cent, leading them to lag woefully behind off-reserve, public schools that have been more robustly funded by the provinces.

Secondly, legislation should pave the way for the creation of native-run school boards to allow for the pooling of expertise and resources. As it stands, band councils administer on-reserve schools, an outdated model that can undermine professionalism in the classroom. Lastly, the bill should emphasize and support the development of native-based curriculum that is relevant to aboriginal students and works to preserve native culture and language.

New research shows that once aboriginal students finish high school, they are just as likely as anyone else to go on to college or university. The federal government and aboriginal leaders need to work together to ensure that more young aboriginal Canadians are given that chance.

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