Tuesday, September 23, 2014
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Education Act remains contentious

' The bill is not perfect, nothing ever is'

By Kerry Benjoe, The Starphoenix

Immediate action by both the federal government and First Nations leaders is needed to address the low high school completion rates for First Nations students living on reserve, say experts.

The C. D. Howe Institute released John Richards' report, Are We Making Progress? New Evidence on Aboriginal Education Outcomes in Provincial and Reserve Schools. It says on-reserve education is in crisis.

Richards has worked in the educational field for many years, particularly in the area of aboriginal education, and he supports Bill C-33 - the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act.

"It should be enacted," he said. "There are a lot of things in it that do make sense. There are a lot of things that could be criticized in it, but my position has always been that improving on-reserve schools requires that First Nations leadership on reserves have some better organization that would allow them to do that."

According to the 2011 census results, 58 per cent of young adults living on reserves have not completed high school.

Although rates among young First Nations adults living off-reserve improved between the 2006 and 2011 censuses, there was little change among those living on-reserve. However, the incompletion rate among First Nations off-reserve is still three times higher than for non-aboriginals, and the Metis rate is twice as high.

According to the report, British Columbia and Ontario have made the strongest improvements when it comes to aboriginal graduation rates, and Manitoba has performed by far the worst, at 12.3 per cent over the national average. Overall, the incompletion rates in the prairie provinces are higher than the national average - Saskatchewan at 8.5 per cent and Alberta at 8.4 per cent.

Many chiefs around the country oppose the bill.

Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN) leaders believe the legislation was flawed from the beginning because it did not include First Nations' input.

FSIN vice-chief Bobby Cameron asked the federal government to confirm in writing that First Nations will have jurisdiction and control over their education systems, and that First Nations will have the authority to design education systems that reflect the inherent and treaty right to education, but his letter was rejected by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Bernard Valcourt, federal minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada.

First Nations leaders agree that graduation rates and retention of students and other issues concerning First Nations education must be addressed, Cameron said.

He said the first step is to provide adequate funding that is on par with other students in the province. However, the majority of leaders are not prepared to give control or jurisdiction over education, he said.

"We will continue to push to have our treaty right to education protected for future generations to come."

Cameron said First Nations leaders remain skeptical that this legislation will improve the outcomes for First Nations students.

Larry Steeves, an associate professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Regina, testified before the Senate committee on Bill C-33 on Tuesday.

"The bill is not perfect, but nothing ever is, but (the federal government) is really trying to move along in ways that struck me as helpful," Steeves said.

The bill is controversial because it proposes some big changes, he added.

According to the report, Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo has lent qualified support for the bill.

"I feel sorry for (Atleo) on this one," Steeves said. "It's never easy. For good reason chiefs are deeply suspicious of the federal government's intentions. I understand that, because let's face it, the history of the federal government dealing with the First Nations community hasn't always been really helpful."

On Tuesday, he suggested to the Senate that some changes be made to the bill, such as the wording around language and culture as well as the removal of the inspector because it just creates confusion.

Steeves said something needs to happen to improve completion outcomes for First Nations students living on reserve.

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