The federal government tabled its long-waited First Nations education bill today amid complaints from some aboriginal groups that the legislation falls short on funding and doesn't entirely give them control over First Nations education.
Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt said Bill C-33, dubbed the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act, meets the five conditions outlined by the Assembly of First Nations and national chiefs during a meeting in Gatineau last December.
"All the concerns they expressed are being addressed," Valcourt told reporters on Thursday.
The bill would provide $1.25 billion over 3 years starting in 2016 so that First Nations students who live on reserves can benefit from the same education standards that are currently available to other Canadians. Funding would increase by 4.5 per cent each year after.
Bill C-33 would also:
- Ensure that First Nations students graduate with a recognized certificate or diploma and that teachers are properly certified.
- Enable First Nations to provide language and cultural programming in a way they see fit.
- Provide a minimum number of teaching hours and days at First Nation schools.
- Allow students to transfer seamlessly between reserve and provincial schools.
- Create a Joint Council of Education Professionals.
- Provide stable and sustainable funding.
- Remove sections of the Indian Act pertaining to residential schools.
'Key elements reflected'
Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo said elements that First Nations asked for are included in the proposed bill.
"I see the key elements reflected and now First Nations must have the opportunity to fully review and fully engage on the next steps."
But Atleo made clear that it is now up to First Nations to read and review it for themselves.
"I encourage all First Nations to do the analysis," Atleo said.
The national chief said he vowed to stand with First Nations in support of First Nations control over their own education.
The five conditions for success as outlined by national chiefs are:
- Respect and recognition of inherent rights and title, treaty rights and First Nations control of First Nations education.
- Statutory guaranteed funding.
- Funding to support First Nations education systems that are grounded in Indigenous languages and cultures.
- Mechanisms to ensure reciprocal accountability and no unilateral federal oversight or authority.
- An ongoing process of meaningful engagement.
Some aboriginal groups have rejected Ottawa's efforts, saying all authority remains in hands of the federal government under the legislation and that First Nations will continue to lack any control over their education systems. They also said funding is insufficient.
Ghislain Picard, the AFN regional chief for Quebec and Labrador who had requested a judicial review of the government's plan, said he will forge ahead with the court challenge.
In an interview with CBC News on Thursday, Picard said that after a preliminary read, the proposed bill contains mostly "cosmetic changes."
He is asking the Federal Court to prevent the legislation from going ahead without his group's endorsement but says even if it doesn't stop this bill from becoming law, he hopes it will force the government to consult with all First Nations going forward.
He said he agreed up to a point with Atleo's assessment that key elements are included in the bill but that concerns around giving First Nations control over their own education remain.
Picard said he is particularly concerned about the Joint Council of Education Professionals which he thinks would still give the minister too much control.
The joint council would be made up of nine members, four appointed on the recommendation of First Nations leaders and the other four appointed by the minister. The chair, however, would be chosen on the recommendation of the minister following consultation with the Assembly of First Nations.
Valcourt insisted on Thursday that the joint council would simply provide Ottawa with information on how the schools are performing, not give the federal government direct control. It would prevent "unilateral oversight by the minister," Valcourt said.
Vice-Chief Bobby Cameron of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations says aboriginals have treaty rights to education under international law that are not trumped by federal legislation.
He adds that the federal government failed to consult in any serious way with First Nations and have ignored all concerns raised by native organizations.