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First Nation challenging school closings in court

Louise Dickson / Times Colonist

The Snuneymuxw First Nation is challenging a decision by the Nanaimo-Ladysmith school district to close three schools on the basis they were not consulted about the needs of First Nations students.

It has applied to B.C. Supreme Court to quash three school closing bylaws passed by the board on June 26, 2013 and to direct the board to sit down and engage in meaningful consultation about the proposed closings.

The bylaws involve closing Cedar Secondary — the only secondary school in the Cedar area — and sending those students to John Barsby Secondary. It also involves closing Woodbank Elementary and North Cedar Intermediate School.

The Snuneymuxw First Nation is one of the largest First Nations on Vancouver Island with more than 1,700 band members. Its traditional territory includes eastern Vancouver Island, the Gulf Islands and the lower Fraser River.

Lawyer Joseph Arvay told the court Snuneymuxw First Nation is not challenging the wisdom of the board’s decision, but questioning whether the board breached its duty of fairness when it adopted a 10-year plan and made the decision to close the schools without meaningful consultation or engagement with the First Nation.

Although the board recognized its obligation to discuss the plan with the Snuneymuxw First Nation, it never did so, he said. The needs of First Nations students and the impact of these changes on them, are not mentioned at all in the 10-year plan.

“This has been one of the most shocking parts of my term of being chief because it reflects a pattern of behaviour from a different era … that aboriginal people don’t matter and Indians don’t know a damn thing about education and they certainly shouldn’t be in a position of control over the lives of their children,” said former Snuneymuxw chief Douglas White.

The situation echoes the ugly ideas that led to the residential school system, White said.

“For a school board to be taking an approach that reflects something from that era in this day and age is just not acceptable.”

Aboriginal education is one of the most important public policy projects in this country, White said.

“This is one of the most important opportunities we have to make a difference in the lives of our people, to make sure we equip them with what they need to look after themselves, to look after their families, to contribute to their communities and to the broader society,” he said. “If we don’t take up our obligation to these kids to equip them with that, then we have failed in one of our most fundamental duties to them.”

Judith Anderson, the lawyer representing the Nanaimo Ladysmith school district, will present the majority of her argument today. Anderson is expected to tell the court that the Snuneymuxw did receive and make use of the opportunity to make its views known during the consultation process.

On Monday, Anderson told Chief Justice Christopher Hinkson that the decision to close the schools was just part of the transition process and the First Nation was sent a letter asking them to participate in that process.

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