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Assembly of First Nations Chief Shawn Atleo

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Education is a key determinant of social and economic health and is directly linked to goals of building strong governing capacity and sustainable economies. It has been an instrument of oppression against first nations, with attempts to remove our identities, fracture our families and eliminate our languages, traditions, thinking and being. These attempts to oppress our cultures, languages and rights must end, and it starts with education.

In 2011, after 10 years of study, Canada's Auditor-General concluded that the disparity between first nations education and the rest of Canada was real and unacceptable. A year later, we must all commit to ending denial and blame and move boldly to fundamentally transform the same old debate.

According to the Auditor-General, successive federal governments have failed, time and time again, to take measures to improve the quality of life of first nations. The Auditor-General pointed the way forward, calling for innovative thinking with increased participation on every aspect by first nations. We could not agree more. In fact, our peoples are leading the way by driving approaches that respect first nation rights, jurisdiction and treaties. We've done the hard work and we're ready to act now for change. But we can't do it alone.

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Closing the gap in education between first nations and other Canadians requires respect for first nation education systems based on first nation rights and treaties. It requires long-term investments based on need and lifelong learning. It requires full support for our languages and cultures and the need to educate all Canadians.

The federal government must uphold the honour of the Crown and fulfill its obligation to indigenous nations by providing sustainable funding in support of first nations education.

The path forward for positive change is based on the implementation of inherent and treaty rights and the affirmation of our government-to-government, nation-to-nation relationship. The path forward must mean an end to unilateral decisions by government. The path forward is fully respecting first nation rights and supporting first nation-driven approaches. First nations control of first nations education must be achieved through negotiation of nation-to-nation jurisdictional agreements ensuring adequate sustainable resources.

We need to act now and fast. We can't afford to lose another generation to the approaches of the past that continue to fail our peoples. It will take 65,000 graduates to close the gap in postsecondary education attainment. Nearly 130 first nations communities around this country are waiting for new schools. We welcome investments for new schools, but it's simply more of the same – and falls far short of the bold, transformative change required based on real needs.

Despite the challenges, we see vast opportunity and reason for optimism. When our young people do complete high school, they're twice as likely to get a job. When they graduate from university, their earnings triple. More important, they're returning home and rebuilding their nations, expanding economic opportunity and creating safe and secure places for their families to thrive.

Our message is simple: Every first nation child must have a guarantee of quality education.

Shawn Atleo is national chief of the Assembly of First Nations.

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