By Mark Kennedy, Postmedia News
OTTAWA — Canada’s First Nations leaders have firmly warned the federal government they will oppose its “unacceptable” reform plan for aboriginal schools and will never again allow their children to be “victimized in the name of education.”
The message — with its blunt reference to the residential schools saga — came Monday in a letter to Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt from Assembly of First Nations national chief Shawn Atleo.
In the three-page letter, Atleo stressed that aboriginal leaders want major educational reforms for children in their communities.
“First Nations are resolute and determined to resume our responsibility fully to First Nation education. While our ways, our rights and our responsibilities were pushed aside by the federal government in the residential schools era, we have been fighting back ever since to take back this responsibility. Today, we are acting to achieve this better day for our children now.”
Atleo described as “unacceptable” a First Nation Education Act the government plans to introduce in the Commons in the coming weeks.
He outlined five basic “conditions” that are necessary if the plan is to be successful: First Nation control of education; guaranteed federal funding; protection of language and culture; joint “oversight” of the new education system; and “meaningful” consultation with aboriginals.
“The education of our children is a fundamental and sacred responsibility, and both a right and a duty of our Nations,” wrote Atleo.
“The residential schools era is a deep scar on the national soul of this country. Every day, our families bear the trauma of this past. Honouring this reality, respecting our rights as Nations and as peoples demands clear actions to achieve reconciliation.”
The residential schools scandal has become one of Canada’s greatest untold stories. Over many decades, 150,000 aboriginal children were sent by the federal government to church-run schools, where many faced physical and sexual abuse.
In 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a heartfelt apology in the House of Commons. Atleo cited that apology in his letter to Valcourt, quoting the prime minister, who said there is “no place in Canada for the attitudes that inspired the Indian Residential Schools system to ever prevail again.”
At the time, Harper spoke of a “new beginning,” with a chance to “move forward toward in partnership.”
In the “spirit” of that apology, Atleo urged Valcourt to work jointly on “a path forward that never again will our children be victimized in the name of education, never again will our dignity, languages and cultures be denied and desecrated.”
Last month, the government released a draft version of the First Nation Education bill for comment.
The draft bill sets out options on how schools can be governed by First Nations communities themselves, a provincial school board, or a native-run school board for the region.
Moreover, the schools will need to abide by educational standards. In cases where they fail to meet those standards, the aboriginal affairs minister can send in a “temporary administrator” to resolve the problem.
And ultimately, says the bill, the federal government will not have any legal “liability” for the actions or omissions of an authority established by First Nations to oversee education. The governing Tories want the bill passed in time so a new system is in place when First Nations children start their school year in September 2014.
Valcourt has said the bill will be “transformational” and historic in its potential ramifications, with better educated First Nations communities eventually seeing fewer social problems ranging from crime to suicide.
In an emailed statement, Valcourt said First Nation youth represent the fastest growing segment of the population in Canada yet they have one of the lowest graduation rates.
He described his draft bill as a “significant step forward.”
“Our government firmly believes that all First Nation students across Canada deserve access to a school system that meets provincial and territorial standards, while respecting First Nation culture, language, rights and treaties,” said the minister.
“Our government has listened to the calls from First Nation leadership, educators, technicians and youth who are unhappy with the current ‘non-system’ that has been failing First Nation students for years.”
After a month of review, said Atleo, the reaction from First Nations is “very clear.”
“The current federal proposal for a bill for First Nation Education is not acceptable to First Nations.”
Aboriginal leaders are worried the draft bill contains no information on the level of funding the federal government would provide First Nations schools under a reformed system with new standards.
Instead, the bill says federal funding would, at some point, be set through regulations.
Moreover, aboriginals are worried a new system might not do enough to teach First Nation languages and culture.