A First Nations Education Act could arrive before Parliament this year, aimed at breaking the cycle of failure on reserve schools and representing one of the most important and unexpected priorities for the Harper government.
So far, this new initiative has been masked by accusations and controversy over who's to blame for the crisis conditions at Attawapiskat, or discussion on whether natives on reserves should be given property rights.
But native education is where the Conservatives hope to make their mark, and they just might succeed.
An important but largely overlooked report from the Senate committee on aboriginal peoples, chaired by Tory Senator Gerry St. Germain and supported by Senate Liberals, arrived in December urging legislation to create a native education system.
The report is getting a favourable response from key decision makers within the Harper government, according to sources.
Virtually every student in this country who does not live on reserve attends a school that is operated by a school board, that is presided over by a provincial ministry of education.
But there is no education system for native communities. There are just schools on reserves run by band councils. Many of those isolated schools are staffed by inexperienced teachers, who are often paid less than those who teach in public schools. They work in inadequate buildings that have no computers or libraries, but plenty of mould. They teach children who desperately need above-average, not grossly below-average, support.
"In time, some will be lost to themselves, to their families and communities, and to this country," the report concludes.
Many chiefs, especially younger ones just arriving on the scene, recognize that ending generations of poverty, ill health and joblessness on reserves begins with properly educating this generation of students.
In Nova Scotia, British Columbia and elsewhere, reserves are banding together to create native school boards that, with the help of provincial governments, pool resources, set standards and adopt a common curriculum that teaches native language and culture along with math, science and language arts. While fewer than half of native students on reserves graduate from high school nationally, the figure for Mi'kmaw students in Nova Scotia – most of whom attend a combination of reserve and provincial schools – is over 70 per cent.
The Senate report proposes building on that model with legislation that would encourage – but not compel – native leaders across the country to co-operate in establishing school boards and even the native equivalent of education ministries, with federal education funding flowing through the new authorities.
Another report, jointly commissioned by the Assembly of First Nations and the government, from a panel chaired by YMCA president Scott Haldane, is expected to provide specifics on how a national program to create native school boards might work.
That report arrives in early February, not long after Prime Minister Stephen Harper meets with native chiefs in Ottawa to discuss education and other matters.
The thinking is that the summit, the two reports and the growing co-operation between the chiefs and the Conservatives – on the education issue, if nothing else – could provide sufficient impetus for a First Nations Education Act that most chiefs would support. If all goes well, Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan could present the bill to the House during the fall session.
Money, of course, will be the key. For 15 years, first nations education funding has grown at a rate of 2 per cent annually, far below the increases for provincial schools. Mr. Harper has let it be known that he is willing to put money into a first-nations education system that is effective and accountable, which is why the Tories are attracted to the idea of school boards.
None of this will be easy. This country has a horrible history of using education to undermine native culture, so we should expect a lot of resistance to any education act, even if some chiefs do endorse it.
Still, the Conservatives have gone much farther down this path than anyone would have predicted. As has already been observed, this really could be Stephen Harper's equivalent of Nixon going to China.