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Aboriginal education dealt blow

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First Nations leaders ganged up to bump off their national chief who supported the Harper government's bill to reform education on reserves. Shawn Atleo, in resigning from the Assembly of First Nations, spilled no vitriol when he resigned late last week in hopes of salvaging the substance of Bill C-33. His intent was simple: to turn the focus back on the children, to raising the pathetic graduation rates that continue to leave First Nations communities mired in dependence.

The AFN now must find a new leader for a discordant group that made the quest for perfect the enemy of good. Good enough for now is how Mr. Atleo and others saw the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act.

The bill, placed on hold Monday by Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt, had met many of the demands of the chiefs, laid out in a 2010 framework on education. The bill allowed for the incorporation of indigenous languages and culture in the classroom, enshrined First Nations administration of schools, the creation of local education authorities and raised the bar for education standards. It came with a federal long-term funding pledge that would have closed much of the per-student grant gap between reserve and public schools.

But it was flawed. Mr. Valcourt's bill gave Ottawa the hammer, ultimately, over reserve schools through the federal appointment of a "joint council" (First Nations would recommend potential members) to monitor regulatory compliance by the bands and recommend recourse if schools were weak. The minister could hire an interim administrator to take control of a school as a last resort.

Some bands were willing to live with the godfather clause, but increasingly more leaders, led in their discontent by Manitoba and Saskatchewan political groups, called this an unacceptable infringement of a treaty right.

Mr. Valcourt could have averted the showdown, could have saved Mr. Atleo, a pragmatist who opened doors of the highest offices in Ottawa. The minister should have worked towards a council composed of equal members chosen by either side.

But as many chiefs today point out, Bill C-33 is a far sight better than the Indian Act's provisions and is backstopped by billions of dollars of increased funding. That is money to start building modern, results-based curricula steeped in First Nations culture and language and taught by certified teachers with critical resource programs that are now lacking in many of Canada's 518 reserve schools.

Instead, the arrogance of the minister and the intransigence of chiefs have set back a meaningful measure of progress, undermining a long-awaited sign of useful co-operation between Ottawa and First Nations leadership in this country.

Ottawa legitimately demands some assurance that the transfer of billions of dollars to band budgets each year will buy change. The bands need comfort that when things go bad financially, a depressing inevitability for too many of them still, their schools will not be yanked from under their authority. There needs to be a mechanism to send in an independent administrator when things go south, but that can be managed by a national First Nations body -- as recommended by a recent national task force on reserve-based education.

Ottawa has yet again given short shrift to its constitutional duty for meaningful consultation, underestimating the resolve of the First Nations leadership in Canada. Restless chiefs were looking for an opportunity to bump off Mr. Atleo, and Mr. Valcourt helped fashion the club.

The solutions, however, are not out of reach for the reasonably ambitious. Impatient leaders, such as Manitoba Grand Chief Derek Nepinak, must put children at the core of the agenda and make a workable counter-proposal Mr. Valcourt can take back to cabinet. That is done through negotiation and compromise, not headstrong obstructionism.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 6, 2014 A8

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Updated on Tuesday, May 6, 2014 at 8:47 AM CDT: adds image

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