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Internal document urges government to raise cap on aboriginal education

Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt responds to a question during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, October 23, 2014.

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The federal government's own Aboriginal Affairs department believes it needs to spend more money if aboriginal children are to have the same kind of education as other kids in Canada, a newly released document suggests.

But such an increase is off the table until the Assembly of First Nations gets behind the Conservative government's controversial bill to reform aboriginal education, according to the department's own minister, Bernard Valcourt.

Since the mid-to-late 1990s, there has been a two per cent cap on the amount that spending on aboriginal education can grow each year. But an internal document from Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development says the cap is too low and needs to be more than doubled.

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"For the (kindergarten to Grade 12) education programs to maintain provincial comparability and NOT draw on other program funds ... new investments are required, including a 4.5 per cent escalator on all K-12 education program funds going forward (starting in 2014/15)," says the document, a slide show presentation from June 2013.

The 22-page document is among several filed as part of First Nations advocate Cindy Blackstock's long battle at the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal to get aboriginal children the same funding from the federal government as non-aboriginal kids get from the provinces.

The document also revealed that Aboriginal Affairs has shifted half a billion dollars meant for infrastructure over a six-year period to try to cover shortfalls in social and education programs.

A spending cap of 4.5 per cent on aboriginal education was part of the Conservatives' proposed legislative reforms. But the bill has gone nowhere since chiefs from across Canada flatly rejected it this spring.

Their unexpected opposition drew the ire of the Conservative government, which thought it had the support of First Nations leaders after Shawn Atleo — then national chief of the Assembly of First Nations — and other chiefs joined Prime Minister Stephen Harper at a reserve in Alberta this past February to announce a breathtaking $1.9 billion in federal money for First Nations education.

But that support quickly evaporated.

Chiefs from across Canada voted in May to reject the education reforms, and they demanded a new agreement with First Nations that provides transfer payments to aboriginal communities.

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Valcourt has said the bill will remain on hold and no new money will be spent until the Assembly of First Nations gets behind the legislation.

His office reiterated that position this week.

"Our government is extremely disappointed that the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) did not honour its agreement with the government," the minister's spokeswoman, Erica Meekes, wrote in an email.

"It was Paul Martin's Liberal government that balanced their budget on the back of, among others, First Nations and imposed a two per cent cap on First Nations' education funding which was never removed during the surpluses that followed.

"It was our government that proposed to remove this cap in Budget 2014, however that was contingent on necessary structural reform."

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