Five steps to better schools on First Nations reserves
NationalPost.com – Full Comment
December 23, 2013. John Richards and Michael Mendelson
Among the most contentious pieces of legislation for the present sitting of Parliament is a First Nations Education Act. It defines for reserve schools the equivalent of a provincial schools act. Knowing it to be highly contentious, Bernard Valcourt, Minister of Aboriginal Affairs, had it posted online, with an assurance that clauses were still open to discussion.
Last month, Shawn Atleo, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) wrote an open letter to the Minister. In a delicate balancing act, he restated the almost unanimous view of First Nations chiefs that Ottawa’s current draft Education Act is unacceptable, but his critique also provided a possible roadmap towards negotiation.
What began in 2011 as a joint AFN/Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs panel on the seriously inadequate state of reserve schools is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to realize reform. The window is open; neither side must slam it shut. After Atleo’s letter, it is now up to the federal government to respond.
In his open letter, Atleo set out five conditions for an acceptable Education Act. These conditions are: 1. First Nations control of education; 2. Assurance of stable and adequate funding; 3. Recognition of the importance of First Nations language and culture; 4. “Jointly determined” oversight of First Nations education rather than unilateral federal oversight; and 5. Ongoing meaningful engagement between First Nations and Ottawa on education matters.
There is nothing in these five conditions that Minister Valcourt cannot accept — although there would be hard bargaining to work out the specifics, particularly with respect to funding and oversight. Ottawa has accepted First Nations control of on-reserve education since the 1970s. At the time, Ottawa offered a Model T version of school organization. Each small First Nation would run its community school independently, much as rural prairie schools operated a century ago. Over the last century provincial schools, in rural as well as urban communities, have combined into school districts in order to provide secondary services and co-ordination.
First Nations have lacked the equivalent to make First Nation control of on-reserve education effective. Atleo is right to insist that the ultimate arbiter of school oversight should not be the minister. There is too much painful history, and there is insufficient administrative capacity in the federal ministry, for this to be viable.
The contentious question of financing should not be a deal breaker: Ottawa has always said that it was committed to the principle of adequate funding for on-reserve schools. The Education Act could, for example, stipulate that funding for particular reserve schools follow the relevant provincial formula for funding provincial schools, with similar provisions for isolated schools, for special needs children, and so on. Ottawa should offer funding for native language and culture teaching. This makes sense because the two systems are not watertight compartments. At any moment in the school year, about 40% of reserve children are attending a provincial school.
While funding is important, the minister is right to insist that money alone cannot solve the problem of low school completion. Better school accountability to parents is important; forming stronger links with other First Nation schools and provincial schools is critical.
The ball is now in Minister Valcourt’s court. He should respond quickly with a statement that these five conditions are an acceptable basis on which to initiate negotiations with the AFN. He should call on the AFN to establish a negotiating team to sit down with the minister’s team and begin the hard work of turning these five conditions into a First Nations Education Act that can work in the 21st century.
John Richards teaches in the Simon Fraser University School of Public Policy and is a fellow-in-residence at the C.D. Howe Institute. Michael Mendelson is senior scholar with the Caledon Institute of Social Policy. Disclosure: both authors occasionally work as consultants for the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development; Mendelson is currently providing advice on contract to the Department. The views here are their own.
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