Dropout chiefs imperil a generation of kids

TheGlobeandMail.com – news/politics
Published Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2011.    John Ibbitson

Indian leaders in three key provinces appear determined to wreck the best chance in a generation to improve the miserable state of on-reserve schools.

Chiefs representing about 230 first nations in Ontario, Quebec and Saskatchewan have decided to boycott a three-person panel charged with finding fixes for the broken first nations education system. Native children will pay the price for this stiff-necked opposition, based on ancient animosities and petty political ambition.

Right now, the federal government sends education grants to reserves, with chiefs using the money as they see fit. Some build and staff schools; some don’t. Only 40 per cent of on-reserve students graduate from high school, half the rate of the general population.

Shawn Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, and John Duncan, Minister of Aboriginal Affairs, agreed last year to create the panel, which will recommend ways to improve the nation’s 500 on-reserve schools. That agreement represented a breakthrough: Indian leaders were setting aside grievances and claims, focusing instead on retooling a native education system that Mr. Atleo correctly describes as “in crisis.” The panel must report by December, after which Prime Minister Stephen Harper plans to convene an education summit with aboriginal leaders.

But the Ontario, Quebec and Saskatchewan chiefs want nothing to do with the panel. Some complain that its chair –Scott Haldane, president of YMCA Canada – is non-native. Others fear the whole exercise is nothing but a federal power grab.

“We never supported it right from the get-go,” said Chief Delbert Wapass of Saskatchewan’s Thunderchild First Nation. National chiefs weren’t properly consulted, he maintained in an interview. He suspects the whole process is a screen for planned legislation that will lead to greater federal control over on-reserve education.

At root is the legacy of the residential schools, which abused generations of Indians in an effort to force their assimilation. That dismantled and discredited system left an ingrained suspicion among many native leaders of education itself and of anything associated with the federal government.

The irony is that the panel may well recommend that Ottawa lessen its role in native education. For years, informed voices within and outside the aboriginal community have argued in favour of native school boards that could work with provincial governments – since it’s the provinces, not Ottawa, that know how to deliver a good education – to create on-reserve schools that marry provincial standards to native cultural priorities. Nova Scotia has already moved in that direction.

But many chiefs would rather see the Harper government increase education funding to their reserves without strings. Do these chiefs really think the Conservatives will advance a single nickel in increased funding unless there are conditions tied to improved performance?

Mr. Atleo remains optimistic. If the other chiefs want to pursue their own path to education reform, he says, that’s fine by him. “I see the panel as holding up a mirror to the whole education system,” he said in an interview. But each region and each nation is welcome to craft its own solution, he added. And he insists that no one, least of all the AFN, wants to see native leaders lose control of first nations education.

Mr. Atleo must run next year for re-election as head of the AFN. Some of the voices of protest may belong to chiefs who intend to run against him. They’ll argue that the national chief has been co-opted by Ottawa and that it’s time for a more militant approach.

There’s still reason to hope that the panel and the boycotting chiefs will put forward solutions that share enough in common to preserve the momentum for reform. But there’s a very high risk that everything will just fall apart, and that the Harper government will give up on native education reform.

And another generation of children will be lost.

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