May 26, 2014
The federal government cannot and should not abandon its efforts to improve on-reserve First Nations education because of divisions among aboriginal leaders over the now-withdrawn Bill C-33.
While the resignation of Shawn Atleo as national chief of the Assembly of First Nations has drawn the most media attention, it is aboriginal students who will suffer most if improvements are not made to on-reserve education.
It is too easy, however, to blame the chiefs who gave Atleo a rough ride for negotiating the bill with Prime Minister Stephen Harper. The chiefs were justifiably concerned that the federal government would have solidified control of on-reserve education under the proposed legislation. They were also miffed that many of them had not been part of the negotiations.
Aboriginal leaders know from long and bitter experience how difficult it is to get the federal government into serious negotiations and to reach a satisfactory solution. To have accepted Bill C-33 would have further perpetuated government paternalism and made it more difficult to move toward self-government in the future.
The talks that led to Bill C-33 were too rushed and too narrowly cast to reach a solution that would satisfy the chiefs who, after all, are responsible for protecting treaty rights such as education and health care.
One can also understand the federal government seeking accountability for the money it planned to pump into aboriginal education. Anyone who receives government money should have to account for it. However, accountability need not mean turning over control.
Too often, breakdowns in talks between First Nations and the government such as we are currently witnessing have hardened divisions, and there are no further talks. A recent United Nations report pointed to deep mistrust between aboriginal leaders and the federal government. That mistrust needs to be overcome.
First, the negotiations that led to Bill C-33 could have been done better. A more inclusive, less time-constrained process could well lead to a real solution. Second, aboriginal education is too important to be abandoned in acrimony. It is of crucial importance for the students, but it is also important for the whole country. Indeed, aboriginal education is one of the most important issues facing Canada.
Large disparities exist in the educational outcomes between First Nations and non-aboriginal students. Programs for special needs, aboriginal culture and languages, athletics and recreation, and other areas are either totally lacking or seriously deficient at on-reserve schools.
For aboriginal youth to gain a future with the same hope as other Canadians will not happen overnight. But the job needs to begin. First Nations students are not failing; we are failing them. Negotiations should not end until the vast majority of stakeholders believe a solution has been found that will end paternalism and vastly improve on-reserve education.
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