Opinion / Commentary
Ottawa latest attempt to improve aboriginal education jeopardized by split in Assembly of First Nations.
John Richards is a smart economist with a social conscience who believes there is a crisis in aboriginal education in Canada.
Bernard Valcourt is Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s fifth minister of aboriginal affairs. He is determined to enact his government’s solution to the problem — the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act — before the next election.
Derek Nepinak is the grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs. He heads a group of aboriginal leaders that is vowing to fight, using every tactic available, to retain control over the education of their children.
The three men are on a collision course.
All think they’re acting in the best interests of Canada’s 650,000 aboriginal children and youth. Regrettably, they’re jeopardizing the prospects of the kids they intend to help.
Richards argues that aboriginal young people — particularly those attending on-reserve schools — are ill-served by the current education system. As proof, he offers irrefutable statistics. In a report just released by the C.D. Howe Institute, he compares the 2006 census, which showed 61 per cent of on-reserve students failed to finish high school, with the 2011 census, which showed a dropout rate of 58 per cent.
“While there is great variation in student performance among the 500 on-reserve schools across Canada, their overall report card is ‘inadequate, need to make major improvements,’ ” he concludes. His prescription: stable federal funding and the “professionalizing” of reserve school administration.
It’s this sort of analysis that infuriates Nepinak, Ontario Regional Chief Stan Beardy, Mohawk Grand Chief Michael Delisle and their allies. It is based solely on federal data. Richards never set foot in their communities or talked to them. He did not take into account their history or their deep mistrust of the federal government. He judged aboriginal students by external standards that do not reflect their values or priorities. “Education is a sacred responsibility that our chiefs have accepted,” said Goyce Kakegamic of Nishnawbe Aski Nation. “We will not accept unilateral encroachment of this sacred responsibility.”
In the middle is Valcourt, struggling to get his legislation through Parliament. He tabled Bill C-33 in the House of Commons on April 10 after almost a year of consultations with the Assembly of First Nations. Its former national chief Shawn Atleo rejected an earlier version of the bill, but called the latest draft “constructive and necessary.” The trouble is Atleo did not speak for the entire assembly. A sizable minority of its 614 chiefs believed he has been co-opted by the Harper government. They accused Atleo of selling out their treaty and inherent rights. So vehement and widespread were his critics that Atleo abruptly resigned his post on Friday.
The AFN has always been riddled with rivalries. There is little Valcourt can do about it.
He knows the internal strife will slow — and possibly derail — his bill. He has already become a target of the assembly’s militant faction. “This is a new era in First Nations leadership where we don’t accept the crumbs they are offering as enticements to allow for our jurisdictions to be swept away,” Nepinak declared last week.
It is not clear how much parliamentary opposition Valcourt faces. The New Democrats have been mildly critical of Bill C-33; the Liberals noncommittal. At this stage, they are the least of the minister’s concerns.
The saddest thing about this power struggle is that aboriginal students have been reduced to bargaining chips. No one is asking what they want or how they see their future. No one seems to notice their voices are missing from the discussion.
In the next few months, Canadians can expect rallies, demonstrations, sit-ins, blockades and simmering anger on reserves.
The long-term outlook is somewhat brighter. A new generation — one that knows the price of failure — will take charge in a few years. Its leaders will respect, but not be bound by, their past. They will have new tools to build consensus. With patience and commitment, they may succeed in building the school system their people need.