The head of the Assembly of First Nations is facing a backlash from his own membership over his tentative support of new legislation that would set standards and funding levels for on-reserve education.
Shawn Atleo, the National Chief of the AFN, offered cautious approval Thursday of a bill the Conservative government's First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act saying it incorporates five issues raised last fall by First Nations leaders.
"Those elements are reflected back" in the legislation, Mr. Atleo told a news conference after the bill was tabled in the House of Commons. They include First Nations control, a statutory funding guarantee, the incorporation of language and culture into curriculum, no unilateral oversight by government, and meaningful engagement in the future. "Now First Nations must have the opportunity to fully review and fully engage on the next steps," said Mr. Atleo.
But many chiefs complain that the nearly $2-billion in new money over multiple years which was announced by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Mr. Atleo in February is too little too late – the bulk of it will not flow until 2016. And many say the legislation leaves the government with too much control over their schools.
It would create a joint council of as many as nine education professionals who would be appointed on the recommendation of the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs to oversee education on reserve and help write regulations.
The bill "does not recognize First-Nations control over First Nations education," said Vice-Chief Bobby Cameron of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations. He has written a letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt, asking them to honour aboriginal treaty rights to jurisdiction over education.
Mr. Atleo's support of the bill is "frustrating," said Mr. Cameron, and "it puts him in a really difficult position because the majority of us are saying 'Atleo, spread the message, send our message to Harper that we oppose this education act.' "
The legislation is an attempt to address the spotty quality of education on reserves where the average high-school graduation rate is less than half that of the rest of Canada. It would require First Nations schools to be staffed with certified teachers, set minimum hours and days of instruction, and demand that graduates are as academically proficient as those of other schools.
Each First Nation would have to hire an inspector to ensure that the standards are met. That inspector would report to the joint council and, if there are persistent problems at a particular school, the council could recommend that the minister appoint a temporary administrator.
When asked what he would do if First Nations leaders do not support his bill, Mr. Valcourt said the government has met the five conditions demanded by the chiefs last fall. "I trust that, once those chiefs and councils and those First Nations all across the country see the bill, see its provisions, and see the way forward which will ensure their participation," he said, they will see that "all the concerns they expressed are being addressed."
But Ava Hill, the Chief of the Six Nations of the Grand River, said she felt shut out of the process. "The National Chief has always said his job was to kick open the door and let us in," said Ms. Hill. "I am waiting for that to happen."
And Gina Deer, the Chief of the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake, said the council is not happy about having to report to a joint council appointed by the minister. Kahnawake has been in charge of its own education since the 1970s and it has worked very well, she said. "We have control. They are not giving us control. And we don't need their permission to give us control."
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