Native education reform snatched from the jaws of success

Peter Jackson
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Forgive me if I’m confused by the latest showdown over native education. From any reasonable perspective, it appears some First Nations leaders in this country don’t know how to take yes for an answer.

Bill C-33 was tabled in the House of Commons in April, after a rare consensus of native leaders across the country. Before it had even reached the floor, however, some more militant chiefs had changed their tune. They wanted no federal involvement in education whatsoever, opting for an all-too-familiar refrain: just shut up and hand over the cash.

The education bill would have been a major milestone for Assembly of First Nations Chief Shawn Atleo, who sees education reform as the pillar of success for natives.

Since the winter of 2013, however, Atleo has found himself under constant rearguard attack by more militant members. His pragmatic approach to federal relations deepened a rift between those who actually want to negotiate change and those who prefer perpetual confrontation.

On Wednesday, dissenting native leaders called for and hosted a so-called Confederacy of Nations meeting in Ottawa. Seeing it as yet another move to undermine his leadership, Atleo resigned before it even took place.

Debate was heated in that meeting. But the confrontationists carried the day. A resolution drafted Thursday declared, “should Canada not withdraw and cease all imposed legislation on First Nations without our free, prior and informed consent, we will strategically and calculatedly begin the economic shutdown of Canada’s economy from coast to coast.”

Meanwhile, Bill C-33 is in limbo. And that is tragic, because no matter how cynical one is about Stephen Harper’s motives, this bill is actually quite progressive.

It pumps almost $2 billion into native education, which everyone agrees is underfunded. It would commit to long-term sustainable funding, and double the existing two per cent cap on annual increases. It would also reinforce the right of natives to run their own boards and incorporate language and culture into the curriculum.

Moreover, it would establish an independent panel of experts, appointed by government and native leaders, that would oversee the act and ensure educational standards are met.

That measure, unfortunately, has become a sticking point for the contrarian contingent, who portray it as yet more interference by the federal government.

They are wrong.

If dissenting leaders think guaranteeing basic standards is meddling, they should consider how native students expect to do anywhere off the reserve. Employers and colleges will look askance at diplomas that have not been standardized. It’s why institutions such as hospitals and universities seek accreditation by independent agencies.

There are pockets of native education in Canada that work well, quite independent of mainstream systems. The Mikm’aq of Nova Scotia, for example, have established a system that boasts an average graduation rate of 88 per cent, compared to the national aboriginal average of 35.

A former member of that education authority believes Bill-33 presents a “historic” opportunity for natives across Canada.

“Setting aside the political heat over the bill, it is very significant,” Harvey McCue, who also served on the James Bay Cree’s school board in Quebec, told the aboriginal news agency APTN.

“There has never been an education bill that speaks to First Nations education and the bill does introduce elements that will lead — if people choose to do that — to a First Nation system of education.”

Like most Canadians, Atleo embraced a better outlook for natives in this country. It would be a travesty to see that vision destroyed by those who thrive on lingering over a tortured past, forever haunted by the ghosts of colonialism.

Peter Jackson is The Telegram’s commentary editor. He also hosts a live lunchtime forum, weekdays at Email:

Organizations: House of Commons, First Nations, Assembly of First Nations Chief Shawn Atleo

Geographic location: Canada, Ottawa, Nova Scotia James Bay Quebec

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Recent comments

  • Cashin Delaney
    May 23, 2014 - 00:16

    Arianna Huffington is fed up with the trolls. I self-identify as a troll. Yet, I agree with Ms. Huffington. "the Internet "trolls," or nasty anonymous commenters, have gotten worse. The Boston Globe, which covered Huffington's speech, quoted her as saying that "trolls have become more and more aggressive and uglier."" The columists have gotten worse...yes, trolls are not in a private vacuum of incitefulness.Yes, what Peter writes here is somewhat, candid, to others, somewhat ugly, but 'Gerald.' Can certainly plug for him, in fact Gerald. could be anyone, even Peter, or it could be me...whoever I am. Anyway, Cashin Delaney, yesterday, had left a funny, lucid, broadminded counterpoint in an 800 word comment (put limits on this?) , and it was not fit to publish, I guess? It was not ugly, hateful, but then beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and truth multiple and nascent. My expert advice, right from the trolls mouth: If online mainstream newspapers are not going to publish all valid anonymous view-points, then publish no anonymous comments. If not, you are letting the dangerous trolls skew influences of the public perception, shape opinion and form attitudes....? My comment was candid too, but not pigeon-holed and confused like Peter's latest column. My more crass and loosey goosey past comments make it past moderation, but not this past one? I can't speak to this poor explication of native education as succinctly as Gerald. in 16 words, of course, so will I be required to launch my own website on OCTOBER 23rd, 2014. If the Telegram can't/won't publish my original comment, and Indigenous-Rampage Jackson won't go toe to toe intellectually with a puny, uneducated, undernourished troll (wise move!), for the TC team, well? What to do? Just don't be such a provocative sook if you can't handle the "polite", but firm pushback. Get a handle on the comments, before I am forced to get a handle on The Telegram, with my own open forum. From the unpublish(able?) comment, "Without Macho Flashing and a niggling mode of expression, and with a more educated, broad-minded approach, Jackson’s efforts here could be so progressively Canadian." What is wrong with that? Publish my comment. Take it on the chin, or keep you hands up next time. Can't have it both ways. I will force you to write more thoughtfully. Well, I can't do that. I will influence, shape and inform you?

  • Gerald.
    May 21, 2014 - 15:18

    Excellent commentary Peter. In my opinion you have candidly expressed an opinion, on this issue, that many of us share. Thanks

    • A Polite, Benign, Troll
      May 23, 2014 - 01:04

      This indicates that a journalist holds the same opinion as a troll. Thank you for so candidly affirming my personal predjudices. Thank you so much Gerald.. - it is so unCanadian to not take yes for an answer.