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Band slams Ottawa for seeking new deal on native-run schools

A grade 5/6 class at Bella Bella Community School in B.C.

The Fort Nelson first nation opened the Chalo preschool in 1982, when 90 per cent of their kids were below their grade level. Today, the reserve school serves kindergarten to Grade 12 and its results are a mirror image, with more than 80 per cent of the school's students meeting the provincial standards.

The remote village school was held up as a beacon of change in 2006 when Ottawa signed a deal with a string of B.C. schools to provide enhanced funding for aboriginal-run schools.

"It was a celebration, we were finally being recognized, we can offer a quality, culturally-rich education to our own students," recalled Kathi Dickie, who was in the House of Commons with eight students from the Chalo Community School when the pact was formally approved.

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Now, as the federal Indian Affairs department seeks to renegotiate the terms, the chief of the Fort Nelson band says Ottawa is threatening to undo the progress that's been made.

After six years of negotiations the federal government has tabled an offer the schools say is unacceptable, asking them either to accept less money for First Nations students or cede control of their children's education.

"It's so disheartening, they have gutted the whole intent, all the promises that were made, that there would have to be adequate funding to ensure the job was done," Ms. Dickie said.

Margot Geduld, a spokeswoman for Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, said that negotiations are ongoing.

"The financial elements are still under discussion."

But members of the First Nations Education Steering Committee, the group negotiating on behalf of the 14 B.C. schools, said in months of discussions with federal officials they've backtracked on promised funding.

"The need is so great and the disparity is so great, right now if approaches like FNESC's aren't supported and funded we're looking at a minimum of a generation to close the achievement gap and I don't think anyone thinks that that makes any sense whatsoever," said Shawn Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations.

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The AFN says the federal government, which is responsible for education on reserves, pays between $2,000 and $3,000 less per student than provinces pay to educate non-native students.

There's a clear gap in academic achievement: The proportion of aboriginal youth aged 20 to 24 living on-reserve who have not completed high school has climbed to 61 per cent, according to the 2006 census.

In it's 2006 agreement, FNESC didn't eliminate the funding disparity between those schools and B.C. public schools but it reduced the gap to about 15 per cent from 37, said Tyrone McNeil, the committee's president.

Either way, he said, the funding is inadequate - first nations students on reserve are simply worth less in Ottawa's eyes.

As for the offer to increase funding in exchange for increased federal control, he said it is a non-starter.

"Indian Affairs is telling us to copy and mirror the B.C. public education system. They simply don't understand why our schools exist," he said.

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FNESC has won praise from observers of diverse political stripes because they embrace both the integration of culture into the curriculum and standardized tests as a recipe for student success. There is some evidence that their approach works.

This year, in standard provincial testing, the Chalo School posted positive results: All 27 students passed Science 10, while 19 of 20 students passed English 10.

The school competes on provincial standards but it also offers students an education grounded in the band's culture, including components such as checking a trap line and skinning an animal.

"Once you build up our kids' self esteem, they can take on the world," said Chief Dickie. But she said the funding shortfall makes that an uphill battle. "When you shortchange the funding, you are setting up our schools to fail."

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About the Author
B.C. politics reporter

Based in the press gallery of the B.C. Legislature in Victoria, Justine has followed the ups and downs of B.C. premiers since 1988. She has also worked as a business reporter and on Parliament Hill covering national politics. More

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