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- Created: Wednesday, 30 October 2013 19:29
- Published: Wednesday, 30 October 2013 19:29
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Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt unveils a punitive plan to whip aboriginal schools into shape.
Opinion / Editorials
The shortcomings of Canada’s aboriginal education system have been well-documented. For decades Ottawa has underfunded reserve schools, ignored their disproportionately high dropout rate, and shrugged off the funding gap between reserve schools and provincial schools.
It should have been good news this past week when Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt rolled out the First Nations Education Act, a comprehensive plan to upgrade the quality of aboriginal education.
But the reforms the minister proposed were so heavy-handed that First Nations immediately struck a defensive posture, branding the plan dictatorial and patronizing. Aboriginal leaders accused him of imposing onerous demands without providing the resources to meet them; spurning their pleas for collaboration and ignoring the United Nations, which urged Ottawa not to rush ahead unilaterally.
The opposition parties echoed those concerns in Parliament. Jonathan Genest-Jourdain, aboriginal affairs critic for the New Democratic Party, warned that Valcourt was launching his overhaul of aboriginal education “in a climate of utter distrust.”
The bill is needlessly confrontational. It empowers the government to seize control of First Nations schools that aren’t meeting Ottawa’s standards. It authorizes federal inspectors to review each school once a year, recommend improvements and appoint a manager if they were not implemented. It does not provide a single dollar to address the $2,000- to $3,000-per-student funding gap between reserve schools and provincial schools. It would not lift the 2-per-cent-a-year on funding for aboriginal education that has prevailed since the Conservatives took power in 2006.
“What the government will not do is throw more money at a known system of education that proves to be failing too many First Nations students across the country,” Valcourt insisted.
The minister assured parliamentarians he is committed to working with aboriginal peoples. If he is sincere, he will have to drop his Ottawa-knows-best attitude, forsake his strong-arm tactics and rethink his refusal to pay for the reforms he is ordering First Nations to make.
The federal government has done a dismal job of administering the 515 reserve schools under its jurisdiction. It does not provide funding for libraries, vocational training, information technology, sports or recreation programs. It does not pay for basic maintenance; many of these schools have leaky roofs, sewage backups and unreliable electricity. A third lack access to clean drinking water. No provincial education ministry operates this way. Yet Valcourt is portraying himself as the champion of Canada’s aboriginal children, the fix-it man who will set things right.
If he wants better results, Valcourt will have to persuade his cabinet colleagues that aboriginal students deserve the same support as their non-aboriginal counterparts.
The aboriginal affairs minister could scarcely have chosen a more inopportune time to inflame tensions between Ottawa and First Nations. They were already simmering over everything from resource development to the disappearance of aboriginal women and girls. The residential schools tragedy was still a traumatic memory for aboriginal elders. Shawn Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, had warned him that eight consultations — plus online questionnaires — were not an adequate basis for proceeding. Oblivious to the trouble signals, Valcourt barrelled ahead.
This is a formula for failure. The ministry of aboriginal affairs has cabinets full of stillborn policies to prove it.
Hoping to begin 2013 on a positive note, Prime Minister Stephen Harper promised First Nations leaders an ongoing dialogue based on “mutual respect, friendship and support.” If he intends to keep that pledge, he will have to rein in his overbearing minister.