Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo says the newly-announced agreement is a good step towards meaningful legislation. Larry MacDougal/Canadian Press
The federal government has unveiled a retooled education plan for First Nations that it says recognizes aboriginal control over schooling.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper was in Alberta today where he announced the proposed changes that will be tabled under the First Nations control of First Nations education act.
Harper also promised an additional $1.9 billion in funding for aboriginal education starting in 2015.
"In Canada, we have never had the First Nation education system that we need," he told the gathered crowd at the Kainai High School on the Blood Tribe reserve north of Cardston.
The government says it has designated $1.25 billion over three years for aboriginal schools across Canada beginning in 2016 — an amount that he pledged would increase by 4.5 per cent each year after.
An additional $160 million for an implementation fund and $500 million for new infrastructure on reserves over seven years is also expected to start in 2015.
The proposed legislation promises to give First Nations control of their education system and enables the incorporation of language and culture programming in the curriculum.
It would repeal the provisions in the Indian Act related to residential schools, which is largely a symbolic gesture that follows the apology made by Harper in 2008.
Funding to be seen post-election
The new legislation would require teachers on reserves to acquire provincial certification and include measures to improve attendance records and low graduation rates on reserves.
The plan calls for minimum education standards consistent with provincial standards off-reserve and allows for the establishment of First Nation education authorities that will act like school boards in the provincial education system.
NDP MP Jean Crowder, official Opposition critic for Aboriginal Affairs, said the majority of the funding will not be seen until after the 2015 election.
She pointed out that students won’t see immediate changes and questions whether the additional funding will be available in future budgets.
Crowder said the government has made big promises, but asked whether they will keep them.
Harper was joined by Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt, Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo and regional chiefs from across the country for the announcement today.
It comes after many First Nations reacted with anger and disappointment to the federal government’s education legislation proposed last October.
Alberta chiefs and the Blood Tribe chief and council also rejected last year's proposal, but Chief Charles Weaselhead said it is important to continue engaging Canada on improving education and graduation rates among First Nation students.
The band agreed to host the announcement after a request from Atleo.
“We agreed to host this national announcement, but in no way endorse the proposed legislation in its present form," said Weaselhead in a release.
"However, we are open to continued dialogue and building relationships.”
The AFN passed a resolution in December that officially rejected the changes proposed last year. It demanded long-term funding guarantees, First Nations control over education and a recognition of their languages and culture in curriculum.
Harper said today's announcement is part of a "historic" agreement with the AFN that will address those issues.
But Atleo still faces much anger in some First Nations circles for working with Harper.
"Today is about ... fairness, opportunity and hope for First Nations children, youth and students," said Atleo.
"Today is a victory for First Nations leaders and citizens who have for decades, indeed since the first generation of residential school survivors, called for First Nations control of First Nations education."
Protesters voice opposition
But not everyone in attendance agreed.
Shannon Houle of the Saddle Back First Nation stood up to voice her concerns during the announcement.
“The reason that I object is that the AFN has no right to negotiate on our behalf because treaty negotiations are a nation-to-nation agreement,” she said.
Atleo said he respects the opinion but adds the agreement is a good step towards meaningful legislation.
“What we are hearing the government commit to is a new way forward that we jointly design an approach to education that we have First Nations control and sustainable funding that has to be anchored in legislation,” he said.
But opposition to the agreement wasn't limited to that single protester inside the event.
Outside the school a small group, including Blood Tribe member Twila Singer, had gathered to protest.
“This isn't what we have asked for. We didn't even know what he was going to be announcing today,” she said. “That just shows the level of consultation that First Nations across Canada get.”
Agreement to be tabled in coming months
Despite those concerns, the government will move forward with the proposed legislation in Parliament in the coming months.
The federal government wants the new act to be in place in time for the next school year in September.
Harper's announcement was followed by a banquet-style meal with the students and leaders of the Kainai Nation Blood Tribe.
A crowd of roughly 300 was on hand for the announcement.
Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada says it spent about $1.55 billion on First Nations education in 2011-12 from kindergarten to Grade 12 and another $322 million on post-secondary education.
Graduation rates among First Nations children are among the lowest in Canada.
Many communities see only half of high school students finish their basic education.
The following AFN report was issued today about what changes will be included in the new act. On mobile? Click here.