The Harper government's draft First Nations education bill holds promise for schools on reserve. Schools will be expected, finally, to hold to a minimum number of school days and to educational standards, now absent in the Indian Act. But conspicuously absent is any talk of Ottawa's obligation to ensure they have the money to do the job.
Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt says the draft act is built on the advice of a national panel that crossed the country for input into a new First Nations education act. That panel, however, highlighted Ottawa's inadequate funding to reserve schools -- thousands of dollars less per student than public schools get -- as central to pathetic graduation rates among reserve residents.
The draft bill would see First Nations bands, school committees and principals, or education authorities if resources are pooled regionally, assume control of education -- setting curriculum that meets provincial standards, services and setting goals for student achievement to ready them for the job market or post-secondary education.
Some First Nations groups already are rejecting the bill for lack of consultation, but also because it mandates an inspector (of their choice) to hold bands to the standards required. The bands may have a better proposal for regular reporting, but Ottawa needs to be assured it is getting results for money spent.
As a blueprint for a new deal, the bill is fundamentally hobbled. The Harper government is setting out expensive expectations of reserve schools, including a requirement they serve special-needs students and offer services and supports -- libraries, computers, clinicians perhaps -- typical of public schools. These carry a high cost, especially for small and remote communities.
First Nations deserve better assurance of adequate funding they can expect within the act's regulations. Mr. Valcourt, however, says the bill is to be in effect for the 2014 school year. That sounds like an intent to proceed, with or without First Nations co-operation, which may doom this bill to repeat the Chrétien government's failed attempt to impose in 2005 a governance act on bands.