Education act fails First Nations

By Doug Cuthand, The Starphoenix

The Harper government's first education act was universally panned in Indian Country, which found it to be severely wanting and an affront to First Nations people.

The Assembly of First Nations reviewed the legislation and presented a paper to the minister that outlined the act's shortcomings and what was required to make it right. It listed five concerns.

Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt and his minions went back to the drawing board, tinkered with the legislation and gave it a new name: The First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act.When he introduced the new act, Valcourt stated that it answered all of the AFN's concerns. However, condemnation has been universal, and once again it appears that he missed the mark. So what are the five concerns, and were they answered?

First and most important, the AFN insisted that the treaty right to education be respected and recognized.

There's a vague reference in the new legislation to the treaties and Sec. 35 of the Constitution act stating that nothing in the act will abrogate or derogate from the protection provided for existing treaty rights. There is no definition of the treaty right to education, or even a reference to it.

Our side of the argument is that education at all levels is a treaty right. Treaties specifically state that the federal government will provide a school for each reserve. No federal government has recognized our treaty right to education, and we don't expect that any opposition party will raise the point.

The second item the AFN sought was a statutory guarantee for funding.

The act states that the minister will enter into agreements to fund schools on reserves, but there is no reference to the level of funding or parity with provincially run schools.

In February, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced that funding for First Nations education would increase by $1.9 billion. It sounded great, but the promise lost its lustre upon a closer look. The increase would be $1.25 billion, and spread over three years, beginning in 2016. Another $500 million is for infrastructure, spread over seven years. The AFN has pointed out that First Nations in Ontario alone could use all of the funds immediately.

First Nations currently are signing funding agreements for the coming year. In the case of my community, we had a 10 per cent decrease in the budget, and the salaries of the teaching staff were capped.

I suspect there will be a similar cutback next year, so when 2016 rolls around, our education budget will be cut by 20 per cent and the teachers due for an increase. So when Harper's new funding arrives, we won't see an increase but it will be catch-up money. It's all smoke and mirrors designed to make the government look good and First Nations people appear ungrateful.

The AFN's third concern was the issue of language and cultural education. The new education act allows for this, but there's no new money provided. Instead, school administrations are required to find the funds within existing resources. ¦¦ Accountability, specifically reciprocal accountability, is the next area. The government is demanding accountability from First Nations, but we can't get any accountability from Ottawa. The funding is not specific, and cutbacks are at the whim of the government and not based on reality.

Finally, the AFN wants a meaningful process to address issues by working together and recognizing First Nations jurisdiction.

Yet this education act was written by the ministry in isolation, with no input from the First Nations governments. The act is written in such a way that the federal government can make unilateral decisions and take over a reserve school if it deems it to be in administrative difficulty. The legislation is paternalistic, and does not reflect our treaty right to education.

The act has been given a new name and called the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act. It is anything but that. The government likes to give Orwellian names to its legislation, such as the "Fair Elections Act," assuming that the public will believe that you can judge the contents by the title.

In the case of our education act it's like putting lipstick on a pig. At the end of the day, what you still have is a pig.