A Manitoba aboriginal leader says the federal government's proposed changes to education on First Nations are "paternalistic" and "colonialist."

Late on Tuesday, the Conservative government released a draft of the First Nations Education Act, which would see Ottawa setting and enforcing standards for schools on aboriginal reserves, and wrest temporary control of schools that fail to make the grade.

But Grand Chief Derek Nepinak of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs says the government's proposed reforms remind him of the residential school system.

"When you read between the lines you see the minister is granted a tremendous amount of authority under the new legislation, with none of the liability," Nepinak said.

"It's a continuation of the paternalistic colonialist type of legislation that we've been subjected to under the Harper regime."

The government has long held that substandard schooling and academic performance has played a significant role in impoverishing aboriginal Canadians.

The First Nations Education Act is the centrepiece of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's aboriginal affairs agenda.

Nearly half of students fail to reach Grade 12: study

A recent C.D. Howe Institute report determined that almost half of aboriginal students nationwide fail to get to Grade 12.

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Grand Chief Derek Nepinak of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs accused Ottawa of manufacturing a First Nations education crisis, adding that the real problem facing First Nations schools is funding. (CBC)

The study found Manitoba had the worst record of six provinces with substantial aboriginal populations, with 63 per cent of natives failing to graduate high school.

"Our government firmly believes that all First Nation students across Canada deserve access to a school system that meets provincial and territorial standards, while respecting First Nation culture, language, rights and treaties," Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt said in a statement late Tuesday.

"The draft legislative proposal for First Nation education would put in place a system that is accountable to students, and ensures that First Nation students have access, like all Canadians, to a good education."

But Nepinak said the "one size fits all" approach to legislating education does not work for treaty people, and First Nations leaders were not even consulted in the drafting of the act.

"Mr. Harper's new legislation is a trip back down residential school processes and the elimination of Indian control over Indian education," he said.

Funding a major issue, says chief

The grand chief accused Ottawa of manufacturing a First Nations education crisis, adding that the real problem facing First Nations schools is funding.

"When we talk about education gaps, you know, we definitely have to make a consideration that the funding is a major issue," said Nepinak.

"Mr. Valcourt, the minister, can talk all he wants about not funding a broken system, but who broke the system to begin with?"

Nepinak said First Nations have been struggling with an education funding gap for the last 20 years, while student populations on reserves have skyrocketed.

National Chief Shawn Atleo of the Assembly of First Nations says the federal government must "meangingfully and immediately engage with First Nations."

"We must get this right, right now," Atleo stated in a release.

The AFN said Valcourt met with its chiefs committee on education on Monday and "they delivered a direct message that First Nations must be fully and meaningfully engaged in the design, development, and implementation of First Nation education."

According to the AFN, the federal government says it will accept feedback on the draft legislation until early January.

With files from The Canadian Press