By Jorge Barrera
APTN National News
The final push that gave birth to the First Nation education bill currently before Parliament occurred during discussions between Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt and Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo, according to a senior federal official.
Francois Ducros, Aboriginal Affairs assistant deputy minister for education and social development programs, told the Senate Aboriginal Peoples committee Wednesday evening that “discussions” occurred “over the last couple of months” between Harper, Valcourt and Atleo. Ducros didn’t say how many meetings the three actually had on the proposed education bill. When asked about the issue by APTN National News after the Senate committee hearing, Ducros referred questions to Valcourt’s office.
The PMO and Valcourt’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment sent late Wednesday evening. Harper, Valcourt and Atleo jointly announced on Feb. 7 a new education bill would be tabled in Parliament.
Ducros volunteered the information after she was asked by Conservative Sen. John Wallace about the department’s discussion with the AFN over the bill. Ducros said there had been discussions with the AFN over two years.
The First Nation Control of First Nation Education Act, Bill C-33, was debated for the first time on second reading in the House of Commons Wednesday. The bill is expected to go to before the Commons Aboriginal affairs committee next week.
The Conservatives have moved to use time allocation to limit debate on the bill to hasten its passage through the House of Commons. It’s believed the Harper government wants to have the bill passed into law before the House rises for the summer.
Valcourt issued a statement Wednesday afternoon condemning the NDP for its initial opposition to the bill.
“The First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act is a constructive and necessary step towards a better future for First Nations students across the country and I am both shocked and saddened that the NDP would stand in the way of improving the lives of First Nations students for purely partisan reasons,” said Valcourt. “Thomas Mulcair and the NDP are choosing to stand with those calling to bring Canada’s economy to its knees…I am disturbed that they would play politics on the backs of First Nation children.”
NDP Aboriginal affairs critic Jean Crowder has criticized the bill for giving the minister too much power over First Nation education.
Mulcair met with chiefs from Quebec and Labrador this week who asked the Opposition Leader to oppose the bill.
The Senate is currently conducting a pre-examination on the bill, which has yet to reach the Red Chamber.
Ducros, along with Chris Rainer, Aboriginal Affairs’ director of strategic policy and planning directorate in the education branch, and Martin Reiher, acting general council and director of operations and programs in the Justice Canada’s legal services unit, appeared as witnesses before the committee.
If passed, the proposed bill would guarantee funding for on-reserve education that would increase at a rate of 4.5 per cent a year. Ottawa would also add $1.2 billion in funding to education in addition to existing funding levels which are around $1.55 billion a year, said Ducros. The money would flow after the next federal election in 2016.
If passed, the bill would also require First Nation schools to meet mandated standards, including ensuring all students graduating from reserve schools have recognized certificates or diplomas, receive a minimum number of instructional hours and are taught by certified teachers. The bill would also ensure all children have access to elementary and secondary education on reserves.
Schools would also be required to appoint a “school inspector” responsible for ensuring the school is meeting all requirements including the academic performance of students at the institution. If a school fails to meet standards, it could be put under co-management or under third-party management by the minister on advice from a Joint Council of Education Professionals.
Ducros faced questions from Sen. Lillian Dyck on the extent of the department’s consultation on the bill. Referring to recent public statements from chiefs across the country decrying the lack of consultation, Dyck pressed Ducros on whether the department had a different understanding of consultation.
“We are still hearing many First Nations organizations still saying they haven’t been consulted,” said Dyck.
Ducros said the department faced pressures from two fronts: the need to act quickly on improving the dire education situation on reserves and the need for consultation. Ducros said lots of talk preceded the bill, including the work of a blue-ribbon panel on education which held hearings, followed by the department’s own consultations across the country and the release of a blueprint and draft education bill last year.
“With something as intimate as education you are never going to finish consultation,” said Ducros. “There is always going to be a lot of angst around something like this.”
Ducros said the majority of First Nations want to work with the department on the bill and are preparing for its passing into law.
“Some don’t want to work with us, but not a lot,” said Ducros.
Ducros, and the two other officials, also faced questions from Sen. Wilfred Moore on the need for the education council, which will be appointed by the federal cabinet and provide advice to the minister. The council will also be the go-between during discussions on developing the regulations and funding formulas associated with the bill.
“To me it looks like the white man sitting on top,” said Moore.
Ducros said the education council would have no say in how First Nations decided to deliver their education systems. The education council was actually created to restrict the minister’s power, she said. Currently, contribution agreements between First Nations and the department primarily govern education on reserves. Ducros said the minister has unfettered power in these agreements.