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First Nations leaders split over bill regarding on-reserve education

Grand Chief Derek Nepinak of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs is shown in Ottawa on Jan. 18, 2013.

PATRICK DOYLE/REUTERS

First Nations leaders from five provinces are joining forces to oppose the government's bill to reform on-reserve education – legislation that is supported by the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) and its National Chief Shawn Atleo.

Chiefs from Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, Alberta and Saskatchewan will make public on Monday their plan for forcing the government to significantly change or scrap what has been dubbed the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act.

Among the strategies being considered are demonstrations that could last for multiple days, blockades of resource industries, constitutional challenges, and an appeal to the international community through the United Nations.

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The bill was intended to give First Nations control over their own education. But the many chiefs who oppose it say there has not been adequate consultation on the bill, and that it imposes standards on First Nations while allowing the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs to intervene in on-reserve education through a council dominated by his appointees.

Pushing the legislation through without the support of First Nations across the country would be an act of "discrimination and racism," said Derek Nepinak, the Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs.

The leaders are directing extensive criticism at the AFN, which acts as their voice in Ottawa, and Mr. Atleo, who has endorsed the legislation as the best hope for transforming a system that sees nearly two out of three children living on reserves drop out before they graduate from high school.

An AFN analysis of the bill that was released to chiefs last week says the bill is a "constructive and necessary step, supportive of goals expressed by First Nations for control, respect for treaty and aboriginal rights, recognition of language and culture and a clear statutory guarantee for fair funding."

Although the bill allocates $1.25-billion over three years in additional funding starting in 2016, some chiefs say it may ultimately be insufficient to meet the needs of a ballooning aboriginal population.

When asked whether he would push the bill through Parliament without widespread support of the First Nations, Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt pointed to the AFN endorsement. "I am pleased that the Assembly of First Nations has placed the needs of children first and confirmed that Bill C-33 is a constructive and necessary step forward," the minister said in an e-mail on Friday.

Mr. Nepinak said Mr. Valcourt should recognize that the bill's impact will be felt at the community level, and consultation must be done with individual First Nations, not the AFN.

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"I think what we've got to do is take a really critical review of the AFN's role in this process," said Mr. Nepinak. "I think there has to be fallout from this."

Mr. Atleo said in a statement on Friday that the AFN is working under the direction of chiefs from across the country and supports widespread assessment of the legislation. But Mr. Nepinak said he does not believe Mr. Atleo's support of the bill has the blessing even of the majority of the executive of the AFN.

Stan Beardy, the regional chief for Ontario on the AFN executive, says the legislation was crafted without consultation and takes a disciplinary approach rather than a collaborative approach to First Nations education.

Perry Bellegarde, the regional chief for Saskatchewan on the AFN executive, said the bill needs much more analysis.

And Donald Maracle, the Chief of the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte in southeastern Ontario, said the bill would transfer unlimited liability to First Nations, without enough funding to succeed.

"There's a high number of native children who live off the reserve. If they come back to the reserve, we really don't know what their needs are or how to cost services for them until they get here," said Mr. Maracle. "So the funding could be terrifically inadequate."

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Gloria Galloway has been a journalist for almost 30 years. She worked at the Windsor Star, the Hamilton Spectator, the National Post, the Canadian Press and a number of small newspapers before being hired by The Globe and Mail as deputy national editor in 2001. Gloria returned to reporting two years later and joined the Ottawa bureau in 2004. More

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