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The Globe and Mail

Education is the key to aboriginal (and Canadian) potential

AFN National Chief Shawn Atleo

Charla Jones/The Globe and Mail

The issues facing First Nations today are so wide-ranging it can be difficult to know where to begin. The key is to move on those areas that set a strong foundation for growth. First Nations are united on an agenda for change.

We understand these are extraordinary economic times. Yet this makes it all the more important that we invest immediately in First Nations, especially in youth. If we do not, the gap between First Nations citizens and other Canadians will grow, as will unemployment, creating downward pressure on productivity coupled with upward pressure on social expenditures and programs. All Canadians will suffer and all Canadians will pay for it.

Our agenda is about building strong First Nations that will see Canada fulfill its economic potential. The centre of this agenda is education. First Nations youth are the youngest and fastest-growing segment of our population. Their share of the labour force will triple over the next 20 years. First Nations youth who complete high school are twice as likely to be employed, and those who get university degrees triple their earning potential. Increasing their graduation rates to match those of other Canadians would inject an additional $71-billion into Canada's economy over the next 10 years. This would help eliminate the employment gap, adding another $160-billion to the economy over a 10-year period.

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Investing in First Nations is a long-term, sustainable stimulus plan for Canada's economy. And yet our learners languish. First Nations children receive $2,000 less per year than non-aboriginal students. Schools lack libraries, computers, even heat and drinking water. Some of our communities lack permanent schools. Simple fairness dictates that we address this intolerable inequity.

Our agenda for First Nations education involves three key ingredients: stability, systems and support.

"Stability" means stable and secure funding - a guarantee - to achieve specific standards and requirements.

"Systems" means building education systems by and for First Nations that include key supports for our languages and cultures.

"Support" means linking and broadening the support among all education institutions and jurisdictions - in particular, universities and colleges - to achieve success.

Education is a determinant of social and economic health and creates key links to our other priorities: governing capacity and sustainable economic development.

Our aim is to create citizen-centred accountability across our institutions. We must cast off the straitjacket of the Indian Act in order to make decisions and take responsibility within our lands.

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Our vision is of sustainable economic self-sufficiency through investments in stable community infrastructure and effective business partnerships. The private sector will be an important partner.

Successful partnerships have some common features. They are based on planning and community consensus, so that development is responsible and sustainable. A solid information base needs to be built around any venture, including mapping and equipping First Nations to engage effectively and efficiently.

The upcoming Throne Speech and federal budget represent an excellent opportunity.

We would welcome commitments on education. It will take 65,000 aboriginal graduates to close the gap in postsecondary education attainment. Let's work together to close this gap in five years and work toward building 60 new First Nations schools within that same period.

Every other education system in Canada has a secure, legislated base for funding. First Nations education is not secure and is subject to policy change, reallocations and reductions. This is not acceptable - we seek a commitment to a sustainable funding framework.

Our agenda for change also points to the important link between Canada's economy and the riches of our traditional territories. We must commit to new effective and efficient processes to implement treaties and agreements creating certainty and mutually beneficial partnerships for sustainable resource development.

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Let us commit to a new approach that supports our ability to govern ourselves responsibly based on the traditions of our nations and the guidance of our people. This must be followed by action, to give our people hope and create the conditions for Canada to realize its full potential as once imagined by those who went before us and forged the treaties.

Let us turn the page to a new chapter, together.

Shawn Atleo is National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations.

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