First Nations education act draft gets wary reception

First Nations are reacting with anger and disappointment to the federal government’s newly proposed education legislation for First Nations.

Proposed bill gives band councils choice over boards - but Ottawa sets and enforces standards

Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt, right, visited a Grade 7 classroom in Ottawa this month with Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo to mark the 250th anniversary of the Royal Proclamation. Valcourt has released a draft of his department's First Nations education reform legislation. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

First Nations are reacting with anger and disappointment to the federal government’s newly proposed education legislation for First Nations.

The Minister for Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, Bernard Valcourt, quietly released the proposal Tuesday evening on the ministry’s website, although it had been expected that morning.

Under the draft legislation, band councils would be allowed to operate schools directly, as many already do, but also to purchase services from regional or provincial school boards or even from the private sector. First Nations could also form education authorities that would oversee one or more schools in a region.

But it would be the federal government that would set and enforce standards for schools on reserves. And the minister would retain the power to take over a school or school authority if an inspector finds problems.

“The proposal doesn’t acknowledge that First Nations are ready to take care of their own education systems and programs,” said Regional Chief Morley Googoo, who is the chair of the chief's committee on education at the Assembly of First Nations. “That’s not going to be acceptable.”

Who has control?

The draft legislation was almost two years in the making, starting with a national roundtable on First Nations education that began touring the country in 2011. First Nations education was meant to be the centrepiece of the Conservative government’s aboriginal agenda.

“I have to admit I’m quite disappointed,” said Bob Nault, a former Indian affairs minister under Jean Chrétien. Nault is now a consultant, often working with First Nations.

“This isn’t much of anything. Except basically sending a message that it’s the parents' and First Nations’ fault that we don’t have First Nations kids at the same level as non-native kids across Canada. That’s what I get out of this when I read this.”

The proposed legislation would not apply to First Nations that have self-governing agreements that include their own education systems, unless and until those agreements expire. That concerns Tyrone McNeil, president of the First Nations Education Steering Committee in B.C.

“The Harper government says this new legislation will give greater control to First Nations. That is bogus … if anything the minister becomes superintendent of First Nations schools.”

Funding remains an issue

In addition to wanting more control over education, First Nations argued that fair and predictable funding had to be part of the package. Schools on reserves do not receive the same level of funding as provincial schools. Tuesday’s proposal said funding details would be outlined in yet-to-be-written regulations.

“Mr. Valcourt, the minister, can talk all he wants about not funding a broken system, but who broke the system to begin with?” said Derek Nepinak, grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs.

First Nations have complained that real consultation was not part of the process; that being listened to is not the same as being heard.

But Valcourt says that’s not true.

“Ultimately, all input will contribute to improved education on reserve that guarantees minimum standards, provides the mechanism required for stable, predictable and sustainable funding and improves First Nation control over First Nation education,” Valcourt said in a written statement.

First Nations and other interested people have two months to give that input before the final legislation will be tabled.


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