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First Nations have a right to design on-reserve education systems: national chief

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First Nations that contract with public education to operate their schools should continue to do so — if that’s what they think is best for them, native leader Shawn Atleo said Tuesday.

"Existing agreements, if they’re working, there’s no need to change them," said Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations.

Atleo was highly critical of the federal government for the ongoing lack of adequate funding for schools on reserves and for Ottawa’s failure so far to give First Nations control over their own schools, something they’ve been demanding for 40 years.

But Atleo said in an interview that contracted public boards should continue to operate reserve schools where bands are happy with the arrangement.

A handful of Manitoba First Nations has contracted Frontier School Division to operate reserve schools — Black River Anishinabe School is the most recent —  and those bands should be free to continue, Atleo said.

The same goes for Waywayseecappo First Nation’s decision to be in a partnership that has seen it join Park West School Division.

"There’s a deep gap in K-12 funding," Atleo said. "We have to keep pressing that First Nations have the right to design their own systems. Education means so much, that First Nations find ways."

Atleo spoke Tuesday to the annual meeting of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, a session held behind closed doors.

Universities can play "a leading role in lifting the consciousness of Canadians. Universities have a leadership role to play," he said in an interview.

In pushing for aboriginal control of First Nations schools and for vastly improved federal funding for education, Atleo said, "I’d like to see more direct relations between universities and First Nations. There’s deeper partnerships that can and must be developed."

Universities must educate native students in science, the trades, technology, and other subjects, not just beef up native studies programs, Atleo said.

The federal Tories have proposed legislation for aboriginal education that would provide $1.7 billion but still leave Ottawa able to step in if it didn’t like the way local education control was working out.

The money should be at least $1.9 billion and an annual increase of 4.5 per cent, Atleo said.

"First Nations must have real control," he said. Having access to the same education every other Canadian expects should not be dictated by lack of resources, and that includes education funding to teach young people their 52 native languages and for them to learn about their own culture, the national chief said.

"It’s a treaty right, and that right has to be upheld."

Atleo said he earned his degree online — online courses could open up a wide range of subject areas for remote reserves.

"For First Nations, technology innovation holds great promise. Every First Nation should have access to high speed," he said.

"This step isn’t about getting all the way there," Atleo said.

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