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Though need is urgent, reforming native education won't happen overnight

When Scott Haldane presented his panel's report on reforming first nations education to Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan and his officials last January, "they gulped," Mr. Haldane remembers.

"They liked the ideas in it, but they thought the timeline was ambitious," said Mr. Haldane, who is president of the Canadian YMCA. Not only did the report call for a new First Nations Education Act that would lead to the creation of a proper native education system, but it wanted the government to move this year, with the necessary funding incorporated in the 2012 budget.

"The need is that urgent," he believes.

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Mr. Haldane and, far more important, children living on Indian reserves will get at least some of what the panel proposed.

Additional funding for reserves is expected in the March 29 budget, but not enough to satisfy the panel or the chiefs. And the Harper government is also expected to bring forward a First Nations Education Act, perhaps by the end of this year.

The Conservatives have decided to move on native education reform. But they don't plan to move as quickly as some of the most passionate advocates of the cause would like.

Certainly the need is urgent. Forty-two per cent of the Registered Indian population is under 20 years of age (for the nation as a whole it's 25 per cent), and the on-reserve population is expected to grow by 64 per cent over the next 14 years. Sixty per cent of on-reserve youth don't complete high school, severely limiting their own potential and depriving the work force of a valuable resource.

The Haldane panel's recommendations reflect a growing consensus: The key to smashing this cycle of failure is to replace the patchwork of reserve schools overseen by local band councils with a first nations education system. Provincial native school boards, or their equivalent, would supervise the schools and the teachers in them, while ensuring the curriculum fit with both the indigenous culture and provincial standards. For this, there would be extra money from Ottawa and greater involvement by provincial governments – which, after all, are in the business of educating students.

The good news is that first nations don't have to sit around and wait for reform. Earlier this year, the federal and British Columbia governments ratified an agreement with native leaders to create exactly that kind of system. Ottawa is modestly increasing funding in an effort to ensure that students on reserve schools in B.C. receive something close to the education they would get at a public school, while protecting native culture and language.

A similar agreement is already in place in Nova Scotia, with promising results. And the Harper government has signalled that there is no need to wait for legislation if first nations in other provinces want to adopt the template.

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But it will be a struggle. Many chiefs boycotted the Haldane panel. Some of them don't want to see control over education taken away from band councils and given to some supervisory board. Others fear another ploy by Ottawa to assimilate native children. The wounds of residential schools are far from healed.

Broadly speaking – and there are many exceptions – native leaders are divided between an older generation that nurses grievances and a younger generation that wants to fix problems. Improving education on reserve won't happen everywhere or overnight.

But it must happen as quickly as it can. There are a lot of children on reserve who ought to be in a good school.

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About the Author

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

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