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Chiefs insist on in-person meeting with Valcourt to discuss Education Act

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By Shari Narine Sweetgrass Contributing Editor CALGARY







It is not only a matter of not being consulted on the draft First Nations Education Act, it is a matter of only warranting a telephone conference call from federal Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Minister Bernard Valcourt.

“It was somewhat insulting to have a phone conversation… on something as important as this and at a stage of crisis, in my opinion, on education overall… and legislation being imposed on us,” said Driftpile Chief Rose Laboucan.  “Notification is not consultation.”

Laboucan was among the Chiefs from Treaty 6, 7 and 8, and Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo who gathered in Calgary on April 16 as part of the federal government’s consultation process on the proposed First Nations Education Act. While department technicians were on hand for the only scheduled consultation meeting planned for Alberta, the Chiefs insisted on speaking only to Valcourt. After the telephone conversation, the Chiefs put an end to a day of scheduled workshops.

Laboucan says Valcourt offered to meet with Alberta Chiefs in person as soon as possible. The First Nations Education Act is scheduled to be implemented September 2014.

“There needs to be a process for us to work with him now, not later,” she said.

 “We reject any unilateral imposition of further legislation affecting First Nations,” said Treaty 7 Grand Chief Charles Weasel Head in a news release.

If Alberta First Nations cannot help draft the legislation, Weasel Head says they will instead work on meeting their students’ needs through negotiating and implementing the education memorandum of understanding that was signed with the Alberta government a few years ago. Reserve schools follow the provincial curriculum although they are funded through federal dollars.

The AFN and Chiefs across the country have stood firm in their opposition to a federally imposed education act. Of concern is what they see as the government’s belief that “one solution fits all.”

AFN Alberta Regional Chief Cameron Alexis says education is a priority.

“Chiefs and council members and leaders of the day are absolutely in support of quality and equal education. However we have not been involved in what this whole thing is going to look like,” said Alexis.

He calls the federal government’s approach “father-knows-best” and points to the residential schools which were implemented under the same philosophy and the damage they caused to the Aboriginal population.

Alexis says multiple Supreme Court of Canada rulings state “that the level of engagement has to be equal.”

“Prior to anything rolling out let’s work on this issue, in this case education, let’s work on it cohesively, collectively, let’s develop it progressively that it meets the needs of First Nations children, youth, post-secondary. But that hasn’t been done and that’s the problem,” he said. “There was no prior consultation – again.”

Seven consultation sessions have been planned by the government, all of them in urban centres.

“The issue is at the home front, at the communities. There isn’t even one meeting at the home front,” said Alexis.

Alexis also points to the on-line consultation the government has established, which received no input from First Nations. There is also no means to determine who is participating in the on-line consultation.

Laboucan calls the government’s move “dishonest. If something is already written, how is it consultation?”

Laboucan notes that Chiefs and First Nations educators participated in a country-wide federal government-AFN panel on education two years ago. That panel recommended legislation.
“(The panel) said if there was going to be any legislation that there would be discussions with the people impacted, which means First Nations, and would be part of writing this legislation,” she said.

 “It’s very difficult to sign a blank cheque. The Education Act that we’re speaking about, we have not seen it,” said Alexis. “It’s very difficult to say yes to that.”

Alexis adds that a First Nations Education Act has merit but without Chiefs having seen the documentation and knowing what funding is in place or if it includes infrastructure, boards, policies and everything involved with education, there will be no support from First Nations.

“They shouldn’t be imposing legislation on our children,” said Laboucan.