BY DOUG CUTHAND, THE STARPHOENIX
The failure of the Federal First Nations Control of First Nations education act is a textbook example of how not to develop and push legislation as it affects our people.
First, the bill was developed in isolation. Technicians from the minister's office and the Department of Aboriginal Affairs drafted the bill so that they could administer and control First Nations education. Its purpose was similar to that of the Indian Act, which was developed to administer Indians and not in the best interests of First Nations. As a result, it was damned from the beginning.
Second, the government held a phoney news conference to announce new funding that sounded good, but was either spread over years or not available for two years.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt, then-AFN National chief Shawn Atleo and their minions attended a news conference Feb. 6 on the Kainai First Nation in southern Alberta. Harper proudly announced $1.9 billion in new funding for First Nations education, with $500 million earmarked for capital and spread over seven years. Next there would be 1.4 billion in new funding, but it would not be available until 2016.
It really was a non-funding announcement that was designed to placate the First Nations leadership and still give the government a balanced budget going into the 2016 election. The media jumped all over the announcement, touting big numbers such as "2 billion available for aboriginal education."
It was a "feel good" story, and they ran with it. We found out later that it was all contingent on passage of the new First Nations education act. No support, no money: It was a not very subtle example of political extortion.
Meanwhile, the colonial office continued with its cutbacks. We experienced a 10 per cent cut in education funding and a cap on teacher's salaries this year in Saskatchewan. Reports from across Canada indicate the cuts were nationwide. We can expect a similar cutback next year.
Chief Charles Weasel Head of the Kainai First Nation told the Confederacy of Chiefs meeting in Ottawa this week that he agreed to host the news conference out of courtesy to the prime minister. He was not aware of the content of the announcement in advance.
He also told the chiefs that he could not accept the new education act, and agreed it should be scrapped. The whole farce blew up in the government's face. It was a classic example of shallow public relations.
The carrot of the promised funding was inadequate and too far out front, and the stick of the legislation was unpalatable. So, after some analysis the First Nations leaders agreed that either the Bill C-33 should undergo major changes or be scrapped, and a new process undertaken that involves real input from them.
The third failure was the lack of proper consultation. The federal government used the Assembly of First Nations as its touchstone for consultation. This process kept the First Nations at arm's length and compromised the AFN's role as the national co-ordinating body. This led to Chief Atleo being isolated and negotiating in a vacuum.
When it became apparent that the regions were not supporting the education act, Valcourt told First Nations to get onside and support Atleo. It was the kiss of death for the national chief.
The final mistake was not knowing or disregarding the importance of education in First Nations communities. Back in the 1970s, Saskatchewan's chiefs set education as a priority. The result was the national policy of Indian Control of Indian Education, which was adopted nationally and by then Indian Affairs minister Jean Chretien.
This policy led to the establishment of the First Nations University of Canada and the Saskatchewan Indian Institute of Technologies as well as a network of on-reserve schools, most of them extending from kindergarten to high school. We fought this battle and won. The Tories are trying to turn back the clock now.
Many of today's leaders attending the Confederacy of Chiefs meeting in Ottawa were the beneficiaries of the battle for Indian control.
The issue of education is near and dear to the chiefs and councils. Forty years ago, the Indian control of Indian education movement took off, and school strikes were held across the country. Indian control was hard fought and hard won. The depth of our commitment was on display this week at the University of Saskatchewan's annual powwow, when students are honoured for their good work. Friends and parents travel to the university annually for this important event.
The end to the new education act boils down to the federal government's failure to recognize First Nations' treaty rights and its lack of respect for First Nations' right to govern ourselves. All the sneaky tricks and political gamesmanship couldn't pull it off.