The First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act, announced Feb. 7, has not received a better reception than its predecessor, the First Nations Education Act, proposed last October.
Even before Prime Minister Stephen Harper unveiled the new proposal at the Kainai High School, Treaty 7 grand chief and chief of the Kainai First Nation Charles Weaselhead was distancing himself from the announcement.
“We agreed to host this national announcement, but in no way endorse the proposed legislation in its present form,” said Weaselhead in a communique to Kainai members.
Then less than two weeks later, the Assembly of the First Nations of Quebec and Labrador submitted a request for a judicial review before the federal court challenging the consultation process leading to the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act.
AFNQL says the Assembly of First Nations, which had come to an agreement to work with the feds on the Act, cannot sign agreements on behalf of the Quebec and Labrador First Nations. AFNQL leadership say they were not privy to discussions between AFN and the federal government.
Vocal opposition from First Nations about the new proposed legislation centres more on how the agreement came about than on the specifics of the agreement.
Response to an email issued by Atleo announcing that “tentative plans are underway for an announcement of (federal government) investment and a framework to support First Nations control of First Nations education” was met with tweets of dismay, ranging from “I may head down to protest this” to the “AFN has no jurisdiction… to agree to any legislation on behalf of First Nations people in Canada. There is no democracy in the ‘Top Down’ approach to legislation inflicted on First Nations people.”
When Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada Minister Bernard Valcourt introduced the First Nations Education Act last fall, Atleo, chiefs and education advocates slammed the government for taking unilateral action and proposing a one-size-fits-all approach to on-reserve education.
The bill was also criticized for not including dollar figures and for giving the minister control over First Nations education.
Now, many are accusing Atleo, and select members of the AFN, of taking the same unilateral action on the second run at a First Nations education bill.
In an interview with Windspeaker, Atleo said Harper was moving forward on five conditions that “chiefs expressed in assembly…. The chiefs pushed back and said this has to be about true First Nations control of First Nations education.”
Those conditions were outlined in an AFN resolution 21/2013 entitled, “Outlining the Path Forward: Conditions for the Success of First Nations Education,” and adopted by consensus at the AFN Special Chiefs Assembly in December 2013. The resolution calls for guaranteed funding, First Nations control of education, meaningful consultation, protection of Indigenous languages, and joint oversight of the program.
Said Atleo in the face of the criticism, “My commitment stands firmly behind the resolution the chiefs passed in December.”
What has been established now, he said, is a framework with dollars attached that allows First Nations to develop solutions that meet their own needs. Regional and provincial agreements that already exist will be enhanced by new federal legislation, which will provide funding to emphasize cultural and language development.
The proposed legislation will also commit new monies to First Nations education and does away with the two per cent cap on education funding. The 2014 budget confirmed the federal government’s commitment to First Nations education establishing core funding of $1.25 billion from 2016-18 with an annual growth rate of 4.5 per cent; $160 million over four years starting in 2015-16 for an Enhanced Education Fund; and $500 million over seven years beginning in 2015-16 for a new First Nations Education Infrastructure Fund.
Many chiefs have expressed cautious optimism about the figures.
“It is a positive that Canada has conceded to a significant funding component, however… an analysis will need to be conducted further to break down the allocation of dollars, then and only then will the First Nations be able to draw an informed conclusion,” said Fort William First Nation Chief Georjann Morriseau in a news release.
The 2014 federal budget did not offer transitional dollars to fill the gap before the new funding kicks in.
“We did press for all these resources to be made available right now as we do every single year,” said Atleo. “I’m not the one who writes up the language in the budget.”
He said he will continue to advocate for transitional funding as there are a number of First Nations that are ready to move ahead now with changes to their education systems. However, he also noted that some First Nations have indicated to him that they need time to hold roundtables with membership to get guidance.
That the federal government’s funding commitment doesn’t kick in until after the next election is not a concern to Atleo.
“Now we’ve got this budget commitment and I see it as an important commitment. I believe the opposition leaders have expressed support for this announcement as well… so you would expect then going forward, regardless of what happens in the next election, this announcement of this budget will be honoured by the federal government,” he said.
“That’s what I would expect and continue to press for.”
Reform of First Nations education came under the title of “Training the workforce for tomorrow” in the 2014 budget and not under the budget section entitled “Supporting families and communities.”
Atleo said that while the government may view education of First Nations people as a means to fill workforce shortages, “our people recognize this as being multi-faceted. We want our kids to be educated and not just to feed a labour force, but to receive the language and culture.”