Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Native-education logjam helps no one

New formula for funding essential step

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OTTAWA -- Last year at this time, there was a rare emotion swirling between the federal government and Canada's First Nations.


Both the government and many First Nations leaders felt the stars were aligning so the dismal education system most First Nations people were forced to endure would finally be improved.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Assembly of First Nations had jointly declared education to be a priority. An expert panel appointed by Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan and a Senate committee studying native education were finishing their work, and ultimately both released reports calling for better funding and a First Nations Education Act to enshrine certain principles of learning and standards.

Duncan committed to a First Nations Education Act being in place by September 2014.

There was $275 million over three years in the 2012 budget for new reserve schools and early-learning programs.

With all of this, the feeling was maybe, just maybe, the problems facing education on reserves would be addressed.

But in recent months, that hope has faded, replaced with resentment, anger and that old staple, mistrust. The level of that anger will be front and centre this week as chiefs meet in Gatineau, Que., for a special assembly.

The wheels have been slowly coming off the bus over the last year as First Nations leaders perceive repeated attacks on their independence and treaty rights -- from funding cuts to chiefs organizations that are often critical of the government to a number of bills affecting First Nations chiefs say they were not properly consulted about.

In October, Ottawa suddenly issued a press release claiming reserve schools were not underfunded, even though both the Senate committee and expert panel said the opposite. It drove a stake through the hope that Ottawa might be willing to inject some serious cash to improve reserve schools.

Around the same time, the Assembly of First Nations voted to reject a federal First Nations Education Act before it even got started, believing Ottawa was going to unilaterally create legislation that did not properly consult chiefs and other First Nations leaders, and that would be a top-down approach that didn't take into account unique needs in different parts of the country.

Chiefs in Ontario and Manitoba have also made similar rejections in recent weeks.

The ill will toward such legislation -- which a year ago was being touted as a potential saviour for the country's First Nations children -- is so strong Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Derek Nepinak said Friday if anyone at the assembly this week tries to get the idea back on the table "it would be a very big mistake."

The chasm between Ottawa and First Nations appears to be so big Nepinak is ready to wash his hands of this government altogether and start working toward unseating it in 2015.

But if one thing is clear -- kids can't wait until 2015 or longer. When some reserves see fewer than three in 10 of their kids graduate from high school, when education is a critical component for the health and well-being of children, and for the health and well-being of our future economy, we need action now.

And both sides need to get back at it.

Ottawa needs to admit the only reason it can say it spends more per pupil on aboriginal education is because of the tuition it pays for some reserve kids to attend off-reserve schools. That on-reserve schools get less than $7,000 per pupil in funding, far below the $10,500 average for off-reserve schools. A new formula for funding on-reserve education would go a long way to getting this process back on track.

But Ottawa can't do it alone.

First Nations leaders need to be willing to talk. Walking away from the development of a First Nations Education Act before the process has even really started benefits nobody.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 3, 2012 A7

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