Premiers urged to get serious about aboriginal education

TheGlobeandMail.com – Politics – When we open a door to a school, we close a door to a jail,’ Assembly of First Nations chief Shawn Atleo says
Published on Wednesday, Aug. 04, 2010. Last updated on Thursday,Aug. 05, 2010.  Patrick White, Winnipeg

Assembly of First Nations national chief Shawn Atleo challenged provincial and territorial premiers to improve education, boost earning power, purge violence against women and enshrine human rights among Canada’s 1.3 million aboriginals during a meeting with the Council of the Federation.

While the council – made up of Canada’s 13 provincial and territorial premiers – will focus on the wobbly world economy, health-care spending and the long-form census during the annual summer summit of the Council of the Federation in Winnipeg, they spent most of Wednesday in Churchill, Man., meeting with Mr. Atleo and other aboriginal leaders.

“When we open a door to a school, we close a door to a jail cell,” said Mr. Atleo, who focused much of his presentation on a federally funded aboriginal education system that lags far behind provincial schools.

Mr. Atleo implored the council to place pressure on Ottawa to increase funding to aboriginal schools.

He stated that per-student funding of first nations schools is roughly $2,000 lower than the rest of the Canadian population and that 52 per cent of aboriginals drop out of high school.

Those dismal education stats lead to poor economic performance, he said, noting that the unemployment rate among first nations hovers around 50 per cent – this at a time when Canada is expected to face a severe labour shortage within seven years.

“To move on education is a national priority. It’s seen as incredibly urgent. We can’t allow for any time to be wasted,” Mr. Atleo said. “We’ve talked about the economic benefits as well to this country. Our studies show that by 2020, if we close the education and employment gap, it would result in a $71-billion contribution to Canada’s GDP.”

Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger, who is hosting the leaders, said he would write Prime Minister Stephen Harper on behalf of the premiers to request a national meeting on the issue. “We think this would be a significant way for us to discuss how we can move forward together on ensuring that the young demographic in the first nations, Métis and Inuit community has all the opportunities they need to get a first-quality education,” he said.

Mr. Atleo’s action plan urged the provinces to adopt four other measures:

» Develop resource-revenue-sharing agreements that recognized aboriginal title in each province and territory.

» Create a national strategy to study and stop violence against indigenous women.

» Establish a first ministers’ meeting on aboriginal issues.

» Sign on to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People.

“What I heard from the premiers is that there’s no reason why we can’t get on with this work right now, and we’re prepared to do that,” Mr. Atleo said.

In the afternoon, the leaders downed bison sliders and got soaked aboard beluga-watching boats on Hudson Bay.

Council meetings will convene at Winnipeg’s Fort Garry Hotel. The leaders are expected to concentrate on the state of Canada’s economic recovery, water issues and health care.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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