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Canada has about 110,000 children of aboriginal identity under the age of five. Based on current conditions, we could expect that most will live in poverty and that only half will graduate from high school.

There are many reasons for this discouraging outlook, and not the least is the sad fact that there is no first-nation school system. "Most First Nation schools are stuck in the old model of the village school that existed prior to rural school consolidation."

No wonder National Chief Shawn Atleo has made education his first priority, despite all the setbacks on education reform since the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples set out the blueprint in 1996.

Slowly, but with increasing confidence, First Nations, provinces and the federal government are now converging on the creation of school systems that can offer the quality of education that will support a radical increase in high school completion. And we know that once first-nation youth complete high school, about 75 per cent will go on to post-secondary education. This is close to the national average for all young Canadians.

In recent weeks, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has agreed to meet with first-nation leaders to discuss education issues, and the federal government has made two modest but encouraging announcements. The first was an offer to partner with first nation-operated schools in British Columbia that are ready to adopt similar standards to those being implemented in provincial schools governed by the B.C. First Nations Education Authority. The second was a national consultation on options to make "concrete and positive changes for first-nation students," including the possibility of new legislation.

No one should underestimate the potential impact of these developments for the children themselves, for the economy of western Canada or for the fiscal position of federal and provincial governments.

Everyone who has any influence on the governments and first-nations leaders should be pressing the case for effective schools – those on reserve and in the provincial system. Employers in particular can advocate for reform while creating more concrete incentives for first-nation students to stay in school – scholarships, internships and jobs.

The required reforms are complex. They involve federal and provincial legislation, new funding formulas, and the creation of new education institutions -- school districts and regional education centres. B.C. is in the vanguard, and it's time for others to step up to the plate.

Looking beyond the legal and jurisdictional challenges, four overarching reforms are essential:

  • Culturally-appropriate learning experiences in the classroom and in pre-schools,
  • Consistent measurement of student progress,
  • A new institutional framework for education, and
  • Clear pathways to higher education and employment.

First-nations children who are "rooted in their culture" are strong students. Schools and educators have to reinforce students' cultural identity by working with elders and parents to create appropriate curricula and teaching practices.

To sustain support from families and others in the community, schools must issue regular reports on education outcomes and use the reports to drive improvements where needed.

The new institutional framework is needed because cultural adaptation and regular tracking of outcomes are beyond the capacity of the small schools on first-nation reserves and in rural areas.

First nations need to exploit economies of scale created by school districts, giving them scope to develop curriculum, train teachers, test results, be legally accountable to families and students and otherwise support a number of schools in the same region.

This could be first nations' Quiet Revolution. But they cannot do it alone – they need action and sustained support from Ottawa and the provinces and from all of us. It's an opportunity not to be missed.