By Jorge Barrera
APTN National News
OTTAWA--First Nations chiefs in three provinces have struck a crippling blow against a blue-ribbon panel created by the Assembly of First Nations and Ottawa to study on-reserve education and create a template for new legislation.
The decision by 74 Saskatchewan chiefs to join their Ontario and Quebec counterparts in refusing participation in cross-country consultations undermines the legitimacy of the three-person national panel currently studying ways to improve on-reserve K-12 education.
The panel was mandated to provide Ottawa with recommendations on creating legislative solutions to deal with the large education gap between First Nations students living on-reserve and their counterparts in the rest of the country.
The panel’s focus on legislation instead of funding is at the root of the chiefs’ decision.
Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations vice-chief Lyle Whitefish said talk of federal education legislation brought up the dark spectre of residential schools.
“With federal legislation, the federal government will assume full control over First Nations education. They will drive it, develop it, change it and do whatever they want with it and First Nations children will be forced to dance to their tune again,” said Whitefish.
“Perhaps this expert panel is a waste of tax-payers money and a waste of time where we could be increasing results through funding the education gap today,” said Ontario’s Serpent River First Nation Chief Isador Day.
“We believe they’re not addressing many of the issues and money was one of these fundamental issues,” said Kitigan Zibi First Nation Chief Gilbert Whiteduck, whose community is in Quebec.
The dissenting communities have launched their own parallel studies on First Nations education with the aim of delivering recommendations to the federal government.
Many Ontario and Quebec chiefs decided to opt out of the panel’s work earlier this year.
The rejection of the panel by so many chiefs also poses a leadership challenge to Atleo who has steadfastly defended the panel’s work. He is now facing accusations that the AFN has been “co-opted” by the federal government.
“The AFN, our own national First Nations organization, is not listening to us, and appear to have been co-opted by the federal government in supporting a process that will only serve to create legislation that weakens our Treaty right to education,” said Whitefish.
“This making of unilateral decisions and imposing the federal government’s will and wisdom on our people does not bode well for us feeling confident that the relationship between the national chief and the minister’s office is collaborative and in the best interests of First Nations,” said Day.
Atleo and the AFN continued to defend the panel Thursday.
“The work of the national panel…is one avenue to advance these interests and confirms the federal government commitment to improving First Nation education,” said an AFN statement. “The AFN fully respects all other approaches and avenues pursued by First Nations to support First Nations control of First Nations education.”
Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan’s office also issued a statement saying there were no plans to stop the panel’s work.
“Our government is taking action to improve the educational outcomes of First Nation students,” said the statement. “We are working in collaboration with First Nations communities to engage on possible options for improving First Nation elementary and secondary education.”
The panel is expected to submit its final report before the end of the year.
The panel is chaired by Scott Haldane, head of YMCA Canada. Former chief turned consultant George Lanfond and British Columbia educator Carolyn Krause were also appointed to the panel.
Atleo and Duncan could not be reached for comment.