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Native children leave the Chief Matthews School by bus in Old Masset October 3, 2012 where they take Haida language class.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Ottawa and first nations leaders need to work harder to bring about meaningful reform in aboriginal education.

Refusing to collaborate is not an option. Aboriginal leaders should put the interests of children first and set aside historic grievances – including the legacy of residential schooling – and their mistrust of the federal government. For its part, the Harper government should consult the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) before introducing new native education legislation and turn the historic 2008 apology for residential schooling into an act of reconciliation.

Otherwise, native children, who have suffered for years with mouldy classrooms, inexperienced teachers and libraries without books or computers, will continue to lose out. The high-school drop-out rate for first nations people living on reserve is 58 per cent. Suicide rates are higher than average, and so is unemployment and substance abuse later in life. Fixing the educational system gives hope to the next generation – and the chance to succeed.

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The chiefs surely have these same goals in mind for their people. And yet they have ultimately withdrawn their support from the federal government's new act, complaining that they have been excluded from the process.

The bill is expected to create a new system of native school boards that would be properly funded and would follow provincial curricula but also integrate aboriginal culture and languages and bring greater transparency to the way schools are run. These ideas come from a task force that was co-sponsored by the AFN and Ottawa.

"We had hoped that by placing the child at the centre we could break out of the old way of doing things," said Scott Haldane, president of YMCA Canada, who chaired the task force. "Each party has reasons for their positions, but they cannot move forward if they remain so entrenched."

Children living on reserves need better literacy and numeracy programs, special education classes, committed, experienced teachers and an education system that is accountable. These changes are crucial to their progress – and to the country's.

The conversation between the Harper government and the AFN must not end here. Both sides should show a greater willingness to compromise and to create the schools that children living on reserves deserve.

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