First Nations leaders using education bill as “instrument” to “wound” Harper

Some First Nations leaders have decide to use a proposed federal bill aimed at improving on-reserve education as an “instrument” to “wound” Prime Minister Stephen Harper, says one of Canada’s leading expert on Indigenous education.

By Jorge Barrera
ATPN National News
Some First Nations leaders have decided to use a proposed federal bill aimed at improving on-reserve education as an “instrument” to “wound” Prime Minister Stephen Harper, says one of Canada’s leading expert on Indigenous education.

Harvey McCue, who held senior positions with the James Bay Cree’s school board in Quebec and with the Mi’kmaq education authority in Nova Scotia, says Bill C-33, known as the First Nation Control of First Nation Education Act, represents one of the most significant events in the decades-long struggle with Ottawa over First Nation education.

McCue also co-authored a 2012 First Nation education report commissioned by the federal Aboriginal Affairs department for Fracoise Ducros, the assistant deputy minister for education and social development. He wrote the report with Michael Mendelson, a senior scholar with the Caledon Institute of Social Policy who helped develop the Canada Health Act, John Richards, a professor with Simon Fraser University’s public policy institute and Gordon Martell, from the Waterhen Lake Cree First Nation in Saskatchewan and current superintendent of the Greater Saskatoon Catholic Schools.

“Setting aside the political heat over the bill, it is very significant,” said McCue, who is a member of Trent University’s Board of Governors. “There has never been an education bill that speaks to First Nations education and the bill does introduce elements that will lead–if people choose to do that-to a First Nation system of education. That is historic. It is important and necessary. The Act sets the foundation for that.”

Harvey McCue. Photo courtesy of Harvey McCue


McCue said the bill, however, has become “collateral damage” in the ongoing battle between some First Nation leaders, elements of the Idle No More movement and Ottawa.

“Most of the heat that is being generated from the First Nations side is really directed at the prime minister and this current government and less at the content of the Act,” said McCue. “First Nations leaders are, for good reason, very unhappy and upset with the Harper government and it appears that they are using any instrument they can to damage or wound the prime minister and…It would be unfortunate, in my opinion, if the Act disappears.”

The proposed bill, which comes with $1.9 billion in new funding for reserve education, in currently in Parliamentary limbo following the resignation of Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo last Friday. Atleo said he resigned to avoid becoming a lightning rod in the raging debate over the Harper government’s education bill.

Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt’s office said the Conservatives will keep the bill on hold until the AFN decides what it wants to do on the issue. The AFN’s chiefs committee on education is meeting May 15 and a special chiefs assembly is scheduled for May 27 in Ottawa.

The proposed bill would create standards for on-reserve schools and for the administrators responsible for running the schools. The bill also proposes to allow First Nations to group together and form education authorities, develop their own curriculum and set their own school calendars. It would also create a Joint Council of Education Professionals which will take on an advisory role for the minister and an oversight role for First Nation schools. The majority of the council members would be chosen by the Aboriginal Affairs Minister.

Aside from outdated and unused sections in the Indian Act, reserve education is primarily governed by contribution agreements between bands and the federal department. The minister currently has absolute power over education in these agreements.

“Overall, I am reasonably satisfied (with the bill). It is an important step. It introduces a level of accountability that has never been there on the part of principal, on the part of education directors,” said McCue. “It allows for the development, it allows for the introduction of new curriculum. It allows for communities or school boards to decide to establish Cree or Blackfoot or Haida…as the language of instruction and that hasn’t been the case.”

McCue said the bill does have some major weaknesses, including giving the minister too much power over the setting of regulations. Under the bill, First Nations would not have direct input with the minister on the development of regulations. Instead, the joint council would mediate the process.

“I think that the way that the clause on regulation is written it undercuts, it undermines the title of the Act,” said McCue. “Regulations are really what will determine all the issues around curriculum, language of instruction, the really important parts of the Act. If those regulations are determined and decided by the minister through the department then the notion of control is illusionary.”

McCue also said the bill fails with its joint council which falls far short of what was recommended in the report to the assistant deputy minister. The report called for the creation of a national agency for First Nation education which could provide advice to the minister but also undertake research, provide training and as a body where the experiences and expertise from the regions could be shared and developed.

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The report, which Valcourt’s office refused to release, also said that an education bill should allow First Nations to choose whether they wanted to opt-in.

“The joint council is not going to have the kinds of resources that the ministry of education would have,” said McCue. “The joint council is really going to serve as a kind of overseer of what is happening with the school success plans and accountability and so on.”

McCue said Harper is the first prime minister to attempt anything this substantial on education since the Trudeau Liberal government accepted the National Indian Brotherhood’s policy paper on education in 1972 and 1973.

The federal government has, since the 1950s, tried to offload its responsibility for First Nation education to the provinces, he said.

“They chose to allow the provincial ministries of education to basically be the prime educator of our children. It was easier for them to do that,” said McCue.  “Ever since 1950s and the gradual phasing out of the residential school system, we have had the wholesale introduction and continued introduction of the provincial curriculum from k to 12 and the presence of teachers that have been educated solely by provincial teaching institutions.”

And the results have been disastrous, he said.

“It has become painfully obvious that the status quo is inadequate and the provincial curriculum is unable to meet our needs, it is irrelevant to the needs of our community,” said McCue. “And the teachers who are trained exclusively in provincially accredited teachers colleges aren’t trained properly…to teach in our schools and our kids have been suffering for way too long as a result.”

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1 thought on “First Nations leaders using education bill as “instrument” to “wound” Harper

  1. Aanaatwoqwees Valerie Adrian says:

    Way off base.

    I do not oppose the FNCFNEA to hurt Harper or CPC.

    I do not oppose the Bill or see it as collateral damage in “the ongoing
    battle between some First Nation leaders, elements of the Idle No More
    movement and Ottawa.”

    I do not oppose this Bill because of the Idle Know More Movement or the Blue Dot campaign.

    I oppose this Bill because it will override all the hard work we have completed here in BC around Aboriginal Education.

    I oppose this Bill because it is paternalistic and is in NO WAY First Nations Controlled.

    I oppose this Bill because neither I, my family, my community nor my Nation were meaningfully consulted about it.

    I oppose this Bill because we are not Municipalities, regional districts, provinces but we are NATIONS.

    I oppose this Bill because it goes against all the court cases we have
    fought and won to have the right to have control over our education.

    I oppose this Bill because the Federal Government is still trying to “Destroy the Indian in the child.”

    I oppose this Bill because if I do not then the rights of my children,
    their children and their children’s children will be forever lost if I
    lay down and accept it.

    I am Idle Know More, I am a Blue Dot. But more than that I am only one of many who believe that we have to protect our rights and the title that flows from those rights so our next 7 generations know who they are, where they came from, that they do not have to be embarrassed for what our parents, grandparents,
    ancestors have fought for. We are not second class citizens and no one, Indigenous, or not, has a right to try and tell the world why I oppose Bill C33

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