By Steve Rennie
The Canadian Press
OTTAWA — The head of the Assembly of First Nations has written to Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, stressing the urgent need for greater aboriginal education funding in the next federal budget.
National Chief Shawn Atleo's request comes as the federal government says it is willing to negotiate improvements to its plan to reform First Nations education.
In an interview Tuesday, Atleo said he has yet to get a response to his November letter from Flaherty's office. The chief added, however, that he makes similar requests every year as the finance minister crafts his annual budgets.
"It's what we've been saying all along: stable, predictable funding," Atleo said.
"We do this on an annual basis, every single year. We've been under a two per cent cap since '96. This is not the only policy area that we can point to where we've got the support of successive auditors general, major Canadian commentators saying we're deeply underfunded, it's a chasm of injustice that exists for First Nations children."
Flaherty's office acknowledged that it received Atleo's letter, but declined further comment.
"We consider all submissions, but do not comment or speculate on what will be included in the budget," spokesperson Kathleen Perchaluk wrote in an email.
Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada says that in 2011-12, it spent about $1.55 billion on First Nations education from kindergarten to Grade 12, and another $322 million on First Nation and Inuit students pursuing post-secondary education.
That's on top of about $200 million spent on infrastructure for schools and classrooms.
But the Assembly of First Nations says that money falls short of what is needed.
In his Nov. 21 letter, which the assembly provided to The Canadian Press, Atleo told Flaherty that an immediate investment of $355 million is needed in 2014-15 for classroom-level funding. After that, the chief says funding must grow by at least four per cent a year to ensure First Nations children get the same quality education as the rest of Canadian children.
Atleo also told Flaherty there is a need for $20 million over two years to create new, regional First Nation education organizations to provide teacher training, curriculum development and special needs.
The group says about 30 of these organizations will need to be set up across Canada, each with an annual operating budget of about $7 million.
It's also asking for $2.6 billion spread over 10 years for a reconciliation fund to pay for First Nations languages and cultural programming in schools; $500 million over six years to build 40 new schools; and $298 million over 10 years for operations and maintenance.
Atleo says it's critical that the federal government addresses the funding issue.
"There needs to be a shared sense of urgency that we don't push this down the road, either," Atleo said.
"We leave no excuses for this to be punted, to be sidestepped, to not be done, because that's what's happened for 30 to 40 years now. We've got to seize this moment."
Atleo also says he remains confident First Nations and the federal government will reach an agreement on a plan to reform education in the new year.
Atleo has said any agreement must allow for native control of education, provide a statutory funding guarantee, recognize native languages and culture, provide shared oversight and ensure continuing and meaningful engagement.
Last week, in a conciliatory open letter to the Assembly of First Nations, Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt said the government agrees with key aboriginal conditions set out last month that threatened to derail the reform process.
Valcourt also dropped a 2014 deadline for the legislation.
Atleo says he doesn't take the dropped deadline as a sign the legislation will be quietly put aside.
"We will get this done," he said. "We must get this done.
"And we must remove all excuses not to achieve justice for the kids — to do so, though, while standing full on our principles that this is also about the implementation of treaty rights and our inherent rights."