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‘We’re going to be heard’ on First Nations Education Act: Delisle

Kahnawake chief says aboriginal education is underfunded, shouldn’t be subject to federal government takeover

By Christopher Curtis, THE GAZETTE

If Stephen Harper isn’t prepared to scrap the First Nations Education Act, he can expect members of the Iroquois Caucus to mobilize on Parliament Hill “en masse.”

That’s what Kahnawake grand chief Mike Delisle said Thursday after the Iroquois Caucus signed a resolution rejecting the act in its entirety during a meeting on the South Shore reserve. The caucus represents eight aboriginal communities in Quebec and southern Ontario.

“We’re not saying we want to block roads or bridges,” Delisle told The Gazette. “This is a political fight and we’re going to take it to Ottawa. We’re going to be heard on this. We are willing to work with Ottawa as equals, it’s time they started working with us.”

The resolution comes as Stephen Harper is set to announce a First Nations education funding agreement during a ceremony in Alberta on Friday. Schools on the hundreds of reserves across Canada are underfunded and there are “clear gaps” in the quality of education between First Nations and non-Native students, according to a 2013 report by Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development.

Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt says he’s prepared to increase funding for on-reserve schools and hand over more control of education to individual band councils. However when presenting a draft of the law in October, the minister said he would like to see reform in First Nations classrooms before committing additional funding to education.

“There’s a serious funding problem in schools right now, we can’t afford to delay fixing it,” said Ava Hill, grand chief of the Six Nations territory. “There was almost nothing about funding (in the draft bill). That’s not acceptable.”

Aboriginal Affairs spends about $2 billion on First Nations education every year, but annual funding increases have been capped at two per cent since the 1990s. Meanwhile, Canada’s aboriginal population increased by 20 per cent between 2006 and 2011, forcing First Nations to stretch their education budgets even thinner.

In Kahnawake, federal dollars meant to pay students’ university tuition aren’t meeting demand. Every year the band council’s Post-Secondary Student Support Program money is depleted and council has to pay hundreds of thousands out of pocket to send young Mohawks to college.

“Our kids want to learn, they want to go out there and get jobs and contribute to society,” Hill said. “This benefits all Canadians, not just First Nations. We can do a better job educating our children than the government can. We want (the children) to know about their language, about their culture so they can get a sense of who they are before stepping out into the world.”

Chief among the concerns of the caucus members is a fear that the bill could make it legal for the federal government to take over local education if a school doesn’t meet certain curriculum goals. Delisle said the mere mention of a federal government takeover reminds him of Canada’s dark history of forcing aboriginal children to attend residential schools away from their homes.

“I don’t think this would be nearly as bad but you can understand how people are reluctant to hand over education to the government,” Delisle said. “We’ve had control over our schools for nearly 60 years and there have been a lot of success stories. We’ve made mistakes, too, but this system works if we can give it the funding it needs.”

The First Nations Education Act has also been rejected by the Assembly of First Nations and other regional aboriginal entities. However, in the past few months, Valcourt and AFN grand chief Shawn Atleo have opened a dialogue on the subject, with Valcourt saying the federal government is willing to negotiate improvements to the bill.

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