The federal government’s attempt to consult First Nations across the country over its proposed First Nations Education Act remain controversial, with some taking part in a series of meetings, and others pledging to boycott them.
Outside a meeting held in Saskatoon by Aboriginal Affairs Canada on Feb. 8, tensions boiled over as Idle No More (INM) members say they were shut out midway through, leading to a skirmish with security guards that left the TCU Place doors smeared with blood, according to video and several witness accounts.
“The morning meeting went fine,” said Sylvia McAdam, one of INM’s co-founders. “People were sitting there; we were listening. It was quite empowering to listen to chiefs saying they opposed the First Nations Education Act... The chiefs there in the morning did extremely well. They opposed the legislation.
“Idle No More does not consent to any consultation that undermines and infringes on the treaty right to education. I asked them how come they’re not working with what is already there. They didn’t answer me. Why are they not funding the schools already in existence on reserves on par with other education institutions, instead of trying to create a First Nations Education Act?”
According to McAdam, the meeting took a break at 10:30 a.m., but when she and about 50 people returned at 1 p.m., as they had been told, security guards informed them the meetings were now closed to the public.
“I was like, ‘What?! Why? That can’t be true!’ People were starting to move up the stairs, and security said, ‘You can’t go over there. It’s a closed meeting for safety reasons.’
“A young man tried to open the door, and a security guard pulled it hard enough to make a cut on his hand. An older lady tried to come out. She was inside the meeting. She was holding the door open and telling us to come in. Security shoved her–even grabbed her by her head–and started pushing her. She was trying to explain something to him, but he wouldn’t listen. He was really rough… Even other [TCU] staff were telling that security guard not to do that.”
Several chiefs eventually negotiated to allow members of the public inside, a few allowed into the meetings and others observing from a foyer. But McAdam said she wants TCU Place and Aboriginal Affairs to apologize for the incident. But the CEO of the building told Windspeaker he was asked by the department not to speak to media.
“At the request of our client who booked the meeting,” TCU Place CEO Bob Korol told Windspeaker “We have ‘no comment’.”
Aboriginal Affairs did not respond to Windspeaker’s request for comment on the consultation, the incident with security, or why the afternoon meeting was closed to the public.
Prior to John Duncan’s surprise Feb. 15 resignation as Aboriginal Affairs minister–after he wrote a character reference for a constituent facing tax court, violating Cabinet rules–the minister insisted education remains a priority for the government.
“I was pleased to meet today with National Chief Atleo, Regional Chief [Morley] Googoo and other members of the Chiefs Committee on Education,” Duncan said on Dec. 6. “Our meeting was frank, productive and focused on how we can work together to achieve our shared objective: improving First Nation education.
“We agreed that a good education leads to greater economic opportunities for students, which in turn contributes to healthier, more prosperous and more self-sufficient First Nation communities. We also agreed that the current approach is not working; First Nation students are not graduating at the same rate as other Canadians, which limits their opportunities. Only significant changes to our approach to First Nation education will lead to improvements in graduation rates.”
Over the coming months, the Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada is inviting citizens to take part in an online survey which asks questions about educational priorities as well as meetings in cities across the country.
According to the Assembly of First Nations and education advocates, the government only spends $7,101 per aboriginal student on reserves. That is more than $3,000 less than the amount spent on each non-Native student country-wide.
But according to Aboriginal Affairs, the ministry claims that First Nations students in fact receive more funding on average than other pupils–$13,542 per student in the 2010-2011–not including money for infrastructure and building maintenance, a figure which varies by province.
Compared to the 2009 national average of $10,439 for each off-reserve child’s education, the Conservatives’ figures significantly contradict aboriginal advocates.
But both sides agree that outcomes are substantially lower for First Nations students with high drop-out rates and lower grades across the board.
According to one study, there are 520 band-run schools on First Nations reserves across Canada, with 77 housed in temporary structures, and 10 closed due to “dire conditions,” including a lack of running water, black mold, snake and rat problems, and over-crowding.
“If they’re not willing to fund the schools we already have–Indian-controlled Indian education–are they prepared to guarantee funding as long as the sun shines, the rivers flow and the grass grows? That’s the treaty promise for education,” McAdam added.
Duncan disputed the claim that First Nations students are funded at a lower rate than non-Native students, and upheld his government’s record on aboriginal education.
“Our government continues to take concrete steps to improving educational outcomes for First Nation students,” Duncan said in a statement last October. “Our innovative approach to these additional funds builds on the $1.7 billion our government invests annually in First Nation elementary and secondary education and will ensure that more First Nation students get the education they need so they can pursue the same opportunities available to all Canadian students.”
As chiefs met with Aboriginal Affairs staff and Minister Duncan inside the TCU Place meeting room, outside, Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde told reporters he opposed the government’s consultation attempts.
“Their consultation process is flawed,” Bellegarde told reporters. “[It] doesn’t respect First Nations jurisdiction.
“I think we are all trying to do and say the same thing about improving educational outcomes. It’s important to keep that at the forefront.”
For McAdam and the dissident chiefs–some of whom expressed outrage over the AFN agreeing to meet with government at all, despite internal resolutions opposing such consultations as attempts to legitimize Conservative reform –the issues of education are of vital importance.
“If they’re sincere about the best interests of Indigenous children,” McAdam said, “then bring the funding on par with the province now, so that our children can be enjoying the same level of education and educational funding as other educational institutions. Let them do that first, to show their sincerity.”
Education consultations are planned for Vancouver the week of March 4; Winnipeg the week of March 11; Quebec the week of March 25; and finally Thunder Bay, the week of April 8.
Comments can also be submitted on the department’s Web site survey.