Shawn Atleo: First Nations Education Act 'must act as a bridge'

"Our support is resolute for every First Nation advancing their own vision of First Nation control of First Nation education," writes Shawn Atleo. "This work is simply too important to walk away and abandon our students to the next round of discussions, to tell them they will have to wait."

Bill C-33, the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act, was tabled on April 10

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo sees forward movement in the First Nations Education Act. (CBC)

First Nations control of First Nations education has been a goal of First Nations for more than 40 years, going back to the 1972 policy position statement Indian Control of Indian Education and, indeed, further back to the first generation of children who were apprehended and forced into the hated residential schools.

No doubt this scar is an indelible reminder of the need — of the right — of our communities and our nations to be responsible for educating our young. 

Traditionally, education was a lifelong process that started by raising our children in their languages and cultures, learning the knowledge and teachings of their role in the circle of community, and to survive and thrive on the land.

This is why any efforts aiming at First Nations control of First Nations education spark such strong feelings and passion among our people. We know we must get this right.

Where we see First Nation control, we see success

When I was first elected in 2009 I ran on a platform emphasizing education as a priority. For me, action on First Nations education means better graduation rates, better schools, more post-secondary students and, simply, more opportunity for our young people to achieve their goals.

It is clear through many examples and models that where we see First Nations control, we see success.

Last December, chiefs passed unanimously a resolution to pursue an approach to First Nations education based on five key conditions: respect for First Nations jurisdiction, our rights, title and treaties; a guarantee of stable, adequate and fair funding; support for First Nations languages and cultures; removing federal control and oversight and replacing it with reciprocal accountability and transparency; and ongoing meaningful dialogue.

Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt tabled today the First Nations Control Over First Nations Education Act. (Chris Wattie/Pool/The Canadian Press)
Budget 2014, the announcement on Feb. 7, and the tabling of Bill C-33 
— the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act — on April 10, form the government's response to those conditions.

Bill C-33 is already the focus of discussion and debate, as it should be. The Assembly of First Nations did not have a mandate to take part in any co-drafting but have carried forward clear advocacy and expectations based on our five principles.

Now it is time for all First Nations to closely review and analyze the bill based on our key principles. The AFN is preparing its own detailed analysis that we will share with First Nations. But each nation needs to determine for themselves if this bill meets their needs.

Significant movement in bill

We do see movement. The new bill has significant new funding attached to it that is now locked into the federal budget — a total of $1.9 billion.

"The new bill has significant new funding attached to it that is now locked into the federal budget," said Shawn Atleo. (Troy Fleece/Canadian Press)
In addition, First Nations have managed to convince the 
government to eliminate the regressive 2 per cent cap on funding growth that has held back our students. There is now a guaranteed growth rate of 4.5 per cent annually that will keep pace with comparable growth rates in all other jurisdictions.

There is full support for First Nations languages and cultures, and the opportunity to ensure land-based traditional teachings as part of curriculum.

The issue of unilateral federal oversight must be addressed. The Minister of Aboriginal Affairs has offered to enter into a political protocol to consider the implementation and terms of reference for a joint council. The AFN executive and the Chiefs Committee on Education will have to carefully consider this matter. 

We know that First Nations want the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs out of our classrooms, out of our schools and, frankly, out of our lives. Any oversight mechanism such as a joint council to oversee implementation of the bill must be shaped and directed by First Nations.

Bill is not a substitute for self-government

The bill is by no means a substitute for treaty implementation or self-government but rather it must act as a bridge and support for First Nations to establish their own education systems based on their traditions and priorities.

The bill will not impede those who are working on their own systems or have already established them. I have heard people saying that we don’t need to wait and should be establishing our own systems. To that I say: absolutely.

I hear many voices focusing on the problems, and this is right and necessary. I believe, however, that we must take the next step and do the hard work of trying to identify solutions.

I believe in our elders, our experts and leaders. I believe that they have the knowledge, skills and strategies to achieve our goals.

This work is simply too important to walk away and abandon our students to the next round of discussions.- Shawn Atleo, Assembly of First Nations national chief

I want to see better education for our children. I want to see success for our children. But we will never settle for anything that compromises our rights, treaties or principles. We must carefully assess and we must push for any and all necessary changes as well as full clarity on next steps. 

Our support is resolute for every First Nation advancing their own vision of First Nation control of First Nation education.

This work is simply too important to walk away and abandon our students to the next round of discussions, to tell them they will have to wait. 

We owe it to ourselves, our children and our nations to make our best efforts to achieve our lifelong goal of First Nations control of First Nations education.

We must stand together, raise our voices and mobilize our energy and effort to achieve change now.

Shawn Atleo, a member of B.C.'s Nuu-chah-nulth First Nation, is the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations.


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