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Ottawa set to enforce standards for schools on reserves

Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Bernard Valcourt speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.

CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS

The Conservative government is proposing an overhaul of education on First Nations reserves to bring schools up to provincial standards, with Ottawa temporarily taking over schools that fall short.

The reforms in the First Nations Education Act, unveiled Tuesday, are the latest effort to break a cycle of educational underperformance that contributes to poverty on many reserves.

They may also trigger a confrontation with First Nations leaders.

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Debate will be intense – between First Nations leaders and Ottawa, among native leaders, and between those leaders and parents and students on reserve. The Conservative government's self-imposed deadline of having the new law in place in time for the 2014 school year will not easily be met.

The draft First Nations Education proposal was posted on the website of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada on Tuesday, to elicit feedback before the bill is introduced into the House of Commons.

Morley Googoo, the chair of the Assembly of First Nations' chiefs committee on education, said there are many problems with it that could have been prevented if the First Nations had been allowed to help write it.

For instance, funds provided by the government are often inadequate to sustain schools that come anywhere close to their provincial counterparts and the problem is not solved in this legislation, Mr. Googoo said Tuesday night in a telephone call.

"They say that funding is going to be created [later] by their regulations," he said. "How are we supposed to support something without knowing the second part of the equation."

The act also prevents the government and the minister from being held liable for their work under the act, "yet he still wants his hand in the cookie jar to say 'I want control,'" Mr. Googoo said. "So that's not acceptable."

A backgrounder to the bill declares it will "recognize the responsibility and ability of First Nations to provide access to education" for students on reserves. "… It will outline base standards and services required to support success for students and schools."

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Under the new act, the councils will continue to be responsible for schools on their reserves. They can maintain the status quo if they wish, but the act empowers them to contract the job out to a provincial school board or to a private company if they prefer.

Councils can also band together to create a First Nations education authority – essentially a native-run school board that could take over responsibility for administering all the schools in a region or even a province. As well as hiring teachers and principals and allocating capital budgets, the authorities would be responsible for developing a First Nations-centric curriculum that meets provincial standards while incorporating programs on native language and culture.

The most contentious clauses are certain to be those that mandate the setting and enforcing of educational standards on reserve. Each year an outside inspector must review school standards and performance, making recommendations for improvements as needed.

If "major and persistent problems" identified by the inspector are not addressed, if the school is failing financially, or if the government concludes that "there is an immediate risk of student well-being and success," then Ottawa can appoint a temporary administrator to manage the school or schools.

One of the biggest complaints of the First Nations is that there has been a lack of consultation in the creation of this bill.

In such places as Nova Scotia where there are successful models of on-reserve education that the government wants to emulate, there was a year of discussion before an agreement was signed. But the assessment of this new legislation must be completed within a matter of months, Mr. Googoo said.

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"So when other communities right now are voicing their concerns that there have been inadequate consultations and not enough time," he said, "those concerns are very legitimate."

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About the Authors
Writer-at-large

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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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