By Jorge Barrera
APTN National News
The federal cabinet will appoint the members of an education council that will oversee on-reserve schools under the Harper government’s proposed First Nation education bill tabled in the House of Commons Thursday.
Called the Joint Council of Education Professionals, the entity will advise the Aboriginal Affairs minister, receive budgets and performance reports from First Nation schools and First Nation education authorities along with executing a five-year review of the implementation and operation of the legislation.
The bill comes with about $1.9 billion in new funding for education. The largest chunk of the money, $1.252 billion, will be spread out over three years beginning in 2016. Funding for education will also grow 4.5 per cent per year.
Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt said the council will have input on every decision the minister makes on education.
“They will play an advisory and oversight role over the implementation of the Act and the minister’s powers (will be) filtered through their advice all the time for every decision the minister makes,” said Valcourt, during a press conference on Parliament Hill. “The minister, under the Act, cannot make a decision unilaterally without the advice of the Joint Council and that is…how you ensure the point of views of First Nations will always be considered.”
According to the proposed bill, called the First Nation Control over First Nation Education Act, the council will have nine members. The federal cabinet will appoint four members and the chair on the recommendation of the Aboriginal affairs minister. Cabinet will appoint the other four members on the recommendation of the Assembly of First Nation. The AFN will have a say in the selection of the chair.
Valcourt said he didn’t know how much the education council members will be paid. According to the bill, the council is expected to meet at least three times a year.
Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo said the bill met the need for stable and guaranteed funding for education and would help maintain Indigenous languages.
He said the bill would give First Nation communities a say over how their children are taught.
“First Nations must and will drive a way forward for the development of their own education system,” said Atleo. “We will have to do a deeper review of the bill itself…we see a commitment of the principle of First Nation control of education and working with First Nations.”
The bill would allow First Nations to group their schools together under education authorities, enter into agreements with provincial school boards or operate their own schools independently.
Under the bill, all students graduating from First Nation schools will have recognized certificates or diplomas, receive a minimum number of instructional hours and be taught by certified teachers. The bill would also ensure all children have access to elementary and secondary education on reserves.
Department officials said they did not know how many schools currently fail to meet those standards.
Schools would also be required to appoint a “school inspector” responsible for ensuring the school is meeting all requirements under the Act, including the academic performance of students at the institution.
The inspector, who can’t be the school principal or education director, would also be required to submit reports on the school to either the education authority or the band agency responsible for the school. The report would then be submitted to the minister and the education council. If a school fails to meet standards, it could be put under co-management or under third party management by the minister on the advice of the education council.
The bill would also force parents and guardians to ensure children under 16 are enrolled in a school. The bill allows bands to pass bylaws make it mandatory for children under 18 to attend school.
Mohawk Council of Kahnawake Chief Gina Deer said Kahnawake opposed the proposed legislation and the creation of an education council. She said the bill appears to give Ottawa more control over First Nation education.
“Kahnawake is not happy at all,” said Deer, whose Mohawk community sits just south of Montreal. “In Kahnawake, nobody wants to see this government take over education. We need more funding so students can go to post-secondary education and university.”
Six Nations Chief Ava Hill said the bill only gives an illusion of giving First Nation control over First Nation education.
“If they are giving us control, why is it an Act of the government? How is that control?” said Hill. “It’s like an oxymoron.”
Hill and Deer, along with Tyendinaga Chief Donald Meracle, stumbled across Atleo’s press conference on Parliament Hill after meeting with NDP leader Thomas Mulcair.
Atleo did not inform regional chiefs during an executive meeting Wednesday that he planned to hold a press conference Thursday after the tabling of the bill.
Nova Scotia regional Chief Morley Googoo, who is holds the education portfolio with the AFN, said he knew little about the proposed bill and was concerned about the direction things were taking.
“I think clarification of the whole process is a question from everyone,” said Googoo. “I definitely want more information.”
According to Aboriginal Affairs, only 38 per cent of 18 to 24 year-olds living on reserve had completed high school. The department said 25.4 per cent of status Indians do not have a high school diploma and only 65.4 per cent had a post-secondary diploma or certificate.
Sections of the Indian Act dealing with residential schools would be repealed under the bill, which won’t impact First Nations with self-government agreements.
Quebec chiefs recently launched legal action against Ottawa in Federal Court over education.
MPs begin a two-week Easter break next week.