Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt is courting failure with his demand First Nations agree to support a new First Nations Education Act before Ottawa indicates how much more money it will provide to improve schools on reserve. And he told the Globe and Mail the Harper government is prepared to scrap the whole exercise if the native bands don't support it.
This is not just bad leadership, it is dereliction of duty. Further, it effectively says to those affected most by inadequate schools and poor education systems on reserve the federal government cares not enough about their welfare and potential. It is Mr. Valcourt's job to work with First Nations to pull up appallingly low high school graduation rates among youth on reserve.
Schools on reserves are often crowded, in poor condition and lack services seen as basic in public schools. Many students must leave their reserve for high school.
Some of the funding shortfall is due to the way money flows to First Nations -- tucked into operating budgets that allows money to be moved among priorities, but numerous analyses have shown per pupil funding levels for reserve schools are thousands of dollars below those of provincial public schools.
Mr. Valcourt had good advice to rework the Indian Act's education sections into a modern piece of legislation that serves students. The Assembly of First Nations should have been told to submit its proposed education act framework while the minister worked simultaneously on a new funding agreement.
There are useful elements in Ottawa's First Nations Education Act blueprint -- adherence to curricular standards, a mandatory number of school days and requirements for reporting achievement. It sets out expectations for school boards and educational authorities.
All of this will require more spending. It is time for the AFN to respond, to lay out what would make for a better education act. But it is untenable for Mr. Valcourt to demand that bands first agree to expensive new expectations before knowing how they can afford them.
Mr. Valcourt is obliged to see that First Nations schools are adequate, that school resources are modern and that students have well-trained teachers able to meet the considerable task of delivering a good, culturally relevant education. With or without a new education act, he must narrow the funding gap. A new funding agreement must go hand in glove with a statutory framework to improve schools. He should get on with it, and the AFN ought to bring chiefs across Canada toward a compromise on the basics of a modern education act.