First Nations sue Ottawa over right to education

More than two dozen aboriginal communities in Manitoba and Ontario have filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit accusing the federal government of violating a promise made more than 130 years ago.

More than two dozen aboriginal communities have filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit accusing the federal government of violating a promise made more than 130 years ago.

Grand Chief Diane Kelly, who represents the 28 Anishinaabe bands in Manitoba and northern Ontario, says they were promised equal education and a school on every reserve when they signed Treaty 3 in 1873.

But, she says, Ottawa hasn't upheld its part of the bargain.

Instead of a school on every reserve, many of Anishinaabe's 15,000 children are often bused outside their communities, Kelly said Wednesday. When they do attend on-reserve schools, their communities get half the funding of public school students.

The Treaty 3 First Nations have tried to engage the federal government in negotiations but to no avail, she said.

"After 137 years, it's now time that we have to stand up for our children," she told a Winnipeg news conference. "We have too many children with such high potential that will never reach that potential."

Chief Chuck McPherson of the Couchiching First Nation said kids in his community are bused to schools off the reserve.

They are educated by others and are getting increasingly alienated from their own culture, McPherson said. Very few in the community speak their own language.

The reserve would like to have its own school, but even then the funding wouldn't be on par with that for public school students, McPherson said.

"That itself is indicative of Canada's policy of assimilation," he said. "They don't want us to educate our own. They don't make the resources available."

Ottawa working to improve education

Genevieve Guibert, spokeswoman for Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, said the department hasn't formally been served legal notice and can't comment on the claim.

The federal government is working to improve aboriginal education, she said. A national panel on First Nations elementary and secondary education has just wrapped up its hearings.

"There is a general consensus that we must take immediate action to improve the educational outcomes of First Nation students," Guibert said in an emailed statement.

"We are committed to working with First Nations on the changes needed to make meaningful progress on First Nations education and addressing the structural challenges impeding the delivery of education services on reserves."

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty said he would like to see the province take the lead in improving aboriginal education — but Ottawa should still foot the bill.

On the same day the lawsuit was filed in Ontario court, McGuinty's minority Liberal government pledged to improve First Nations education in its throne speech.

"I just think we have a moral obligation to ensure that every child growing up in this province has all the opportunities they need to grow up strong and to become the very best they can be, and to realize all their potential," McGuinty said Tuesday following the speech.

"That's not just a moral obligation. It's a matter of enlightened self-interest when we want to take on emerging economies, when we want to succeed in a very competitive and sometimes turbulent global economy."

Ontario could have larger role, says premier

Ottawa "isn't good" at providing education, but the province has expertise in that area, McGuinty added. The province could take on a much larger role, such as developing a curriculum that speaks to aboriginal needs and history.

"We only ask that they provide funding for kids living in aboriginal communities to the same level that we fund other kids right around the province, and let us take this on," McGuinty said.

"We need everybody at their best, and so I'm hoping we'll be able to engage the feds in this."

The lawsuit was filed in Ontario court.

Lawyer Robert Janes said the lawsuit isn't about the cash. The First Nations are hoping the court action will prompt the federal government to negotiate and honour its treaty obligations.

"The Anishinaabe, at the time, really did want to enter into a world where they could benefit from the changes that were coming while maintaining their way of life. It hasn't panned out that way," Janes said.

"There were serious promises made. There were serious compromises made. The time has come for the government to honour those promises."