Harper finally gets it right on aboriginal education
TheStar.com – Opinion/Commentary – Guarded optimism greets Stephen Harper’s latest plan to upgrade aboriginal education
Feb 13 2014. By: Carol Goar Star, Columnist
“This is a great day for Canada, for First Nations communities and for the next generation,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper proclaimed as he unveiled his government’s revamped aboriginal education plan. “But it is long overdue.”
On his last point, there was unanimity. It has been 42 years since the Assembly of First Nations (then known as the National Indian Brotherhood) first demanded “Indian control of Indian education.” It has been nine years since aboriginal leaders thought they achieved their goal in the Kelowna Accord — only to see the agreement scrapped by Harper’s government.
On the Prime Minister’s other two points — a historic milestone for both Canada and a great day for First Nations — opinions were mixed. Canadians had seen too many grand pronouncements followed by meagre results to cheer wholeheartedly. Aboriginal leaders were hopeful, but wary.
On the positive side:
- The name of the new bill, “First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act,” signalled Ottawa’s acceptance that First Nations have authority over the education of their children.
- The proposed legislation was a distinct improvement over the First Nations Education Act in last year’s budget. It said First Nations schools could be placed under the jurisdiction of provincial boards of education and gave the aboriginal affairs minister the power to send in a federal administrator to fix underperforming schools.
- It came with a specific financial commitment: $1.25 billion over three years in operating funds, $500 million over seven years for infrastructure and $160 million over four years for implementation.
- It empowered First Nations to incorporate their languages and culture into the curriculum.
- And it had Harper’s personal backing.
Given the strained relationship between the Conservative government and First Nations, it was heartening that the Prime Minister met these five key litmus tests.
On the negative side:
- The core funding — $1.25 billion to upgrade teachers’ qualifications, develop the curriculum and raise education standards — won’t flow until 2016-17. That is after the next election. If the Tories lose power, this agreement could go up in smoke the same way the Kelowna Accord did. If they are reduced to a minority, their priorities could change.
- Many aboriginal leaders were excluded from the negotiations. “It is unclear how this agreement came about and how the joint work will be accomplished,” said Regional Chief Stan Beardy, speaking for Ontario’s 133 First Nations.
- National Chief Shawn Atleo’s rapid about-face — in November he called the Harper government’s education reform plan unacceptable; in February he hailed it as the beginning of a new era for First Nations children — left many parents and community leaders bewildered and mistrustful. Even Chief Charles Weaselhead of the he Blood Tribe in Alberta, who agreed to a request from Atleo to host the event, sounded equivocal. “We in no way endorse the proposed legislation in its present form,” he said. “However, we are open to continued dialogue.”
- Harper’s plan, unlike the Kelowna Accord, does not include the Inuit or Métis or First Nations members living off reserves. It does not represent the collective will of Ottawa, the provinces and all five national aboriginal organizations (the Assembly of First Nations, the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, the Métis National Council and the Native Women’s Association of Canada.) It was developed out of public view.
Clearly, there is a lot of work to do. Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt will have to overcome his government’s inclination to set arbitrary deadlines and take unilateral action. Atleo will have to convince the 614 chiefs he leads that he has secured a good deal for their people. And Harper has to stay involved to make sure his plan becomes a workable policy.
History — from the physical and sexual abuse that occurred in Canada’sresidential schools in the 19th and 20th centuries to the scrapping of the Kelowna Accord in 2006 — hangs heavy over this endeavour. Regional tensions also loom large. Some First Nations already control their schools. Others, struggling to provide clean water and decent housing for their members, lag far behind.
With flexibility, goodwill and patience on both sides, last week’s announcement could be the basis of a new partnership between Ottawa and First Nations on education. But it is too soon to talk of breakthroughs, milestones or historic achievements. This is just a road map.
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