First Nations Education Act rollout called paternalistic

The Harper government risks repeating the mistakes of the past by the way it's proposing a new First Nations Education Act, say aboriginal groups and education advocates. A draft bill is expected to be released as early as today.
Children take part in a protest on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Feb. 14, 2013 calling for equal education for First Nations. Draft legislation on a First Nations education reform act is expected as early as Tuesday. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The Harper government risks repeating the mistakes of the past by the way it's proposing a new First Nations Education Act, say aboriginal groups and education advocates.

The government says the legislation — a draft of which is expected to be released as early as Tuesday — is aimed at giving First Nations control over their own education.

But Tyrone McNeil, president of the Vancouver-based First Nations Education Steering Committee, said his province already has an accountable, functioning education system.

And British Columbia aboriginals don't need Ottawa dictating changes that could jeopardize or undermine that system, McNeil said in an interview Monday.

"(The bill is) clearly going to include more control from the federal government," he said. "That's one of our biggest fears."

McNeil said he also expects the draft to include "soft language" defining aboriginal culture and levels of education funding.

What is needed is not reform, but rather adequate and sustained nationwide funding to support an already comprehensive and responsive system, he added.

But Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt said earlier this month that the federal government wants to see reform first before committing more funds.

"Reform will take place, funding will follow. But funding will not replace reform because the current system is failing these kids," Valcourt said in an interview with CBC News.

First Nations tensions

The bill comes as major unrest and discontent continues to simmer among First Nations communities.

First Nations want more say over everything from education to local governance to resource development.

The Idle No More movement has also been demanding a respectful dialogue between Ottawa and First Nations about how their communities are funded and accountability for the money that's spent.

There have also been tensions over resource development projects that have spilled over political lines.

Members of New Brunswick's Elsipogtog First Nation celebrated Monday after a judge in that province lifted an injunction that ordered them to end their blockade outside a compound owned by SWN Resources.

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo has warned the government against forcing through legislation without consultation. (Bill Graveland/Canadian Press)

They are opposed to a shale gas development that they say could harm the environment, particularly local drinking water supplies.

The Harper government released a so-called blueprint document this summer that promised to give First Nations authority over and accountability for their education programs.

But since then, several groups have urged Ottawa to abandon the blueprint, saying it doesn't meet standards set out by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

"This unilateral development of the act has not met the Crown's duty to consult and accommodate First Nations," the British Columbia Teachers' Federation wrote in an Oct. 3 letter to the prime minister.

B.C.'s education minister, Peter Fassbender, has also urged Ottawa not to interfere in the ongoing relationship that province has with its aboriginal communities.

Assembly of First Nations Grand Chief Shawn Atleo also wrote earlier this month that the legislation is being forced onto aboriginal communities without proper consultation.

And he suggested the way it's being handled is akin to how the government tried to assimilate aboriginal children through residential schools.

Members of the Vancouver committee met Monday with Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt to receive a briefing on the proposed bill. They refused comment on details after the meeting.


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