First Nations education in Canada has been a subject of controversy, criticism and much debate in the last few years and a recent announcement by the federal government and comments from Assembly of First Nations (AFN) Grand Chief, Shawn A-in-chut Atleo have added even more fuel to the fire.
The feds released a document last fall entitled “A Proposal for a Bill on First Nation Education.” Not only was it met with a great deal of criticism, it gave First Nations just four months to provide feedback on the new proposal, one that would inevitably become the new First Nation Education Act – or as it has more recently been touted, the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act.
Criticism came from all corners of the country.
Union of Ontario Chief’s Grand Council Chief Patrick Madahbee said the “proposed First Nation Education Act is about control and false accountability. It’s a colonial document and makes no attempt to close the gap on inequality in education.” He also said that Canada “tries to cloak its arbitrary methods by referring to them as ‘reform’ of First Nations Education; the main reform needed is to ensure First Nation students have access to the same quality of education as otter students in Canada.”
Driftpile First Nation Chief and the head of the Education portfolio for Treaty 8 First Nations, Chief Rose Laboucan focused her concerns on Bill C428, an amendment to the Indian Act that she said managed to survive a prorogued Parliament “but has not seen any consultation with First Nations whatsoever.”
The bill was initiated when Conservative MP Rob Clarke introduced it last year. Chief Laboucan noted that because it is a private members bill it has been exempt from many of the rules that would normally apply when an issue is being introduced in legislation.
“Not only have we not been consulted on these changes,” she said, “this bill conflicts with the proposed Education Act. You have two pieces of legislation that are going to do two different things. What is this government trying to do?”
Grand Chief Atleo and other First Nations leaders rejected the government’s education proposal last November but said that if government would agree to five specific changes, there was a chance that an agreement could be struck. The five changes included stable funding, fair and meaningful consultation, protection of languages and cultures, First Nations control of First Nations education and that proper oversight of the new education system will ensue.
Now, just six months after being notified of a new federal education proposal for First Nations education, and four months after having rejected the proposed bill, there’s an apparent agreement in place, a pact that will see the feds provide about $1.9 billion in stable funding while imposing minimum education standards on Aboriginal students. The agreement between Ottawa and the AFN will see First Nations schools teach a core curriculum “that meets or exceeds provincial standards,” while teachers must be properly certified and schools will be required to award diplomas and certificates that are widely recognized. In other words, the certificates and diplomas must be reputable enough that prospective employers can trust and depend on the fact that they meet provincial requirements and standards. The agreement will also see $1.25 billion in core funding handed out over a three year period beginning in 2016. There’s a provision for a 4.5 percent annual increase while another $500-million in infrastructure money will be disbursed over seven years with $160-million being provided over a four year period for implementation of the new education system.
Grand Chief Atelo said that after consultation, Ottawa has approved the changes brought forth by Canada’s Chiefs, saying the deal could be “transformative” and succeed in seeing a total transformation or change in the education system for First Nations.
While endorsing the deal and the new education bill it will create, Chief Atleo said that the new agreement indicates that the feds “recognize First Nations control” and added that by controlling your own education, “this will get the minister out of your life.”
The new bill – which has yet to be drafted, will be known as the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act.
An agreement has been made; the iron has been struck, but the Chiefs, the citizens and the critics continue to voice their concerns; and who can blame them. After all, since the Harper government came to power in 2005 it has done just about everything except cooperate with First Nations. The Conservatives have broken promises, introduced legislation that affects Aboriginal peoples and communities, completely ignored the Kelowna Accord, despite its very important recommendations, cut much needed funding dollars from viable and necessary youth programs, approved industrial growth and endorsed projects in Aboriginal territory knowing all too well what the environmental experts and scientists say about industrial pollutants and the consequences to human health and happiness.
Chief Rose Laboucan says she still doesn’t understand exactly what the new agreement will do or how it will effect education for First nations students.
“We already have a process in the works in Alberta and it has been in place for some time,” she stated in a press release following the Harper/Atleo announcement. “Now that we have heard this announcement, we are wondering what this is going to mean for our children. It sounds promising but we hope that it is not another historic broken promise. It’s sad that the agreement doesn’t become effective until 2016, after the (federal) election. I am sure I am not the only one wondering if this will fall off the table like the Kelowna accord did.”
Chief Laboucan also talked about inequalities that have been demonstrated in what experts say is a 28 year gap between First Nations students and non First Nations students in Canada.
“Education is a priority for us, our children are a priority for us, and I challenge you to ask every Chief in the province and they will tell you the same,” she stated. “Our children need better learning environments and quality lessons now, not years from now. Classrooms in furnace rooms and basements are appalling and unacceptable for anyone’s children. Our teacher’s salaries are below the Canadian average. There have been many inequities going on for years. The Prime Minister’s promises are a good beginning but I truly hope they mean what they say and didn’t just change the title of the bill.”
In the meantime, the Assembly of First Nations in Quebec and Labrador have requested a judicial review of the government’s newly reworked plan for First Nations education and has asked the Federal Court to prevent legislation from taking place without its endorsement. In Saskatchewan there is a growing concern about upcoming funding cuts to important First Nations youth programs. The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs voted on March 6 this year to reject the federal government’s reworked plan for First Nation education. Delegates at an AMC meeting have passed a resolution not to accept any aspect of the plan that was announced last month by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and AFN National Chief Shawn Atleo.
The new agreement has been made but it will take time to pass the new bill into legislation. Critics might suggest that no one get too excited about the deal just yet because the feds have changed their minds before. Also, the First Nations lawyers haven’t yet had time to scrutinize the agreement in its entirely to ensure that the government hasn’t left any loopholes through which it can reinterpret or change any of the originally announced intentions of the deal.
By John Copley