The federal government says it is willing to negotiate improvements to its plan to reform First Nations education and has dropped a 2014 deadline for the legislation.
Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt has written a conciliatory open letter to the Assembly of First Nations, saying the government agrees with key aboriginal conditions set out last month that threatened to derail the reform process.
Valcourt urges the assembly to reconsider the education bill that would put more control in the hands of First Nations themselves.
"The government of Canada agrees that First Nations must have control over their education," Valcourt wrote. "The proposal that I put forth is intended to empower those who know best what their children need — First Nations, parents, communities and administrators — to determine what is most effective for their success."
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Valcourt was responding to a Nov. 25 letter from Shawn Atleo, national chief of the assembly of First Nations, in which he outlined five conditions for moving ahead with reforms.
Atleo said any agreement must allow for native control of education, provide a statutory funding guarantee, recognize native languages and culture, provide shared oversight and ensure continuing and meaningful engagement.
There will be no compromise on principles, he added.
"First Nation control of the education of our children must be the overriding, paramount principle of all our work."
Valcourt said the government plan already meets all five conditions, and also deals with issues raised by the federal auditor general in a 2011 report. But he also hinted at new flexibility in the details of the legislation.
"New funding will be available if legislative reform takes place," he wrote.
But Valcourt also said the government is open to negotiation.
"The consultation process is not finished and there is no deadline. We are only on the first draft of a bill."
He said the legislation provides for a full review after five years, which will allow First Nations to further refine the law.
AFN to review Valcourt's letter
Atleo issued a cautious statement, calling Valcourt's response "important" and noting the minister's offer of more discussions.
"We will make efforts to ensure First Nations are aware of the minister's response,"Atleo said. "We will be carefully reviewing the minister's letter and setting out next steps through dialogue with all First Nations."
Valcourt's letter also pointed out that chiefs have directed Atleo and the assembly to continue working with the government.
"While we have an enormous challenge ahead of us, it is not insurmountable," he wrote.
Graduation rates among aboriginal children are dramatically lower than among non-aboriginal children — a long-standing impediment to prosperity that all sides believe needs to be addressed.
Valcourt said there are signs this can be reversed.
"We see success already before us — such as with a graduation rate among the Mi'kmaq in Nova Scotia that is more than double the national average. Our challenge is to make successes like this the norm, not the exceptions."
Valcourt said he is ready to listen to ideas for improving the federal proposals.
Atleo's letter said the process can still be successful.
"We must remove every reason and every excuse to not act — but rather create the proper and rightful environment to act now together for our children today and tomorrow."
Valcourt seemed to echo that:
"We need to sit down now and have this discussion so that we can move forward together."