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Assembly of First Nations Chief Shawn Atleo at his office in Ottawa. DAVE CHAN for The Globe and Mail

Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

Sixty per cent of aboriginal Canadians living on reserve do not graduate from high school. It's a dismal figure, and it hasn't budged in 30 years. Conditions on reserve schools are deplorable; 40 per cent of native high school students attend school off-reserve. Their parents may recognize their child's best shot at a decent education is at a provincial school, often a great distance away.

The federal government is now trying to remedy this unacceptable situation with a proposal to overhaul reserve schools, which are normally run by band councils. The First Nations Education Act is the best chance Canada currently has of preventing this generation of native schoolchildren from being sucked into the same downward spiral as previous ones.

Under the proposal, on-reserve schools would be raised to provincial standards. Band councils would retain the vast majority of their present power, but would have three choices: maintain the status quo with a community-operated school; join together with other communities under a new First Nations Education Authority; or contract their reserve school out to a provincial school board or private company.

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Native leaders have mostly panned the proposal, which is a shame. A fight over turf is threatening to eclipse what really matters – the future of native kids.

For years, Ottawa has been trying to get buy-in from native leaders. Discussions got off to a promising start but derailed, when Assembly of First Nations Chief Shawn Atleo, under pressure from other chiefs, pulled out. Ottawa could have folded. Instead it pressed ahead. Native leaders have tried to suggest that they had somehow been shut out of the process; this is disingenuous.

Yes, the proposed bill contains no commitment to stable funding. But that can happen after a policy framework is in place. Reserve schools have been underfunded for decades, and the solution is not to just throw more money at the problem. It's to recalibrate the entire system, which is beyond broken.

What would really be best for a native child living on reserve? A much closer relationship between on-reserve and provincial schools. The provinces, unlike the feds or native bands, have the educational expertise and infrastructure to lift standards at this country's 518 on-reserve schools. But while such a solution makes eminent sense on paper, politically it's a non-starter. First Nations would oppose it even more fiercely than they do what's on the table now. Provinces aren't eager to accept the job in the first place, for fear of jurisdictional hassle and financial responsibility. The legal challenges would drag on for years.

The most realistic option is the proposed bill. Its problems have nothing to do with the objections of First Nations leaders. If anything, the draft doesn't go far enough to pressure band councils to change. It creates more bureaucracy in order to achieve efficiencies. If a school posts poor student outcomes for more than two years, the federal government can appoint an outside administrator, but only as a last resort.

What's on the table amounts at best to a half-measure. That may be the most Ottawa could conjure. For native chiefs, it's still too much. For native students, it's at least better than nothing.

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