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 thetelegram.com. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.