By Jorge Barrera
APTN National News
Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt says he doesn’t believe “unanimity” will ever be found on his government’s proposed First Nation education bill, but opposition MPs should follow the “lead” of Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo, think of the “children” and put politics aside on the issue.
The Harper government’s proposed First Nation Control of First Nation Education Act, Bill C-33, is expected to go up for its first debate on second reading in the House of Commons Wednesday. The bill will then go to the Aboriginal Affairs committee for study and hearings.
The NDP tried and failed to have the bill referred to committee following its tabling earlier this month in hopes of changing the scope of the proposed legislation.
The bill is already facing stiff opposition from First Nation leaders across the country. Chiefs from Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec on Monday called on the government to withdraw the bill. The Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs has also come out against the bill.
Valcourt, however, says the bill actually responds to demands made by First Nation people on education since the 1970s when the AFN’s pre-cursor, the National Indian Brotherhood, released its Indian Control of Indian Education policy paper. Shortly after the paper’s release, the then-Liberal government began a process of transferring administrative responsibility to bands for on-reserve K to 12 education.
“Unanimity will never be achieved on this file, however, we must take the lead of a new generation of leaders like the National Chief and put politics aside and do what is in the best interest of the children,” wrote Valcourt in an April 17 dated letter to NDP MP Jean Crowder. “Bill C-33 will achieve so many of the goals put forward by First Nations in the 1971 paper released by the precursor to the AFN. We cannot let this opportunity pass.”
The National Indian Brotherhood actually presented their policy paper to then-Indian Affairs minister Jean Chretien on Dec. 21, 1972.
Valcourt said in his letter to Crowder he disagreed the bill gave Ottawa more power over First Nation education. Valcourt said Bill C-33 gives the minister less power and is less “intrusive” than comparable provincial education legislation. The bill simply demanded First Nation schools meet five core standards, including access to education, minimum instruction days, the need for certified teachers, recognized degrees and the ability to transition with provincial systems, he said.
“All other standards will be defined by First Nations,” said Valcourt. “In fact, the legislation reduces the role of the minister in comparison to the current powers afforded to the minister.”
Crowder, who is the NDP’s Aboriginal affairs critic, said the bill actually gives the minister too much power.
“All through it uses the word ‘may.’ The ‘minister may,’ the ‘minister may.’ It means there is a discretionary power,” said Crowder. “There is nothing to compel the minister to fulfill his responsibility.”
Crowder said she is also concerned cabinet picks five of the nine members on the Joint Council of Education Professionals, which would advise the minister and oversee implementation of the bill.
“The minister is the one who is making the appointments,” said Crowder. “The government is going to maintain control of the joint council.”
Quebec First Nation leaders met with NDP leader Thomas Mulcair Tuesday morning seeking his backing in their fight against Bill C-33.
Education experts have also started to raise concerns about the proposed bill.
Larry Steeves, associate professor in the University of Regina’s faculty of education, said the bill’s proposed creation of an independent school inspector is extremely problematic. The inspectors would be responsible for gauging whether reserve schools are operating up to standards. Steeves said that role is better left to the principal and education director.
“Who will these people be? People like me who are retired directors of education? So we got probably in many cases a white guy coming in to oversee this First Nations jurisdiction,” Steeves said during his testimony Tuesday before the Senate Aboriginal Peoples committee. “Quite frankly it strikes me as a little condescending to think that we’re going to have to second guess them and I think in many ways that’s what’s going on with the school inspector.”
Senior Aboriginal Affairs officials, including Francoise Ducros, the assistant deputy minister for education and social development programs, are scheduled to appear Wednesday evening before the Senate committee.
Currently, Aboriginal Affairs manages “federal authority for First Nations education” and existing policy commits the department to provide services that are “comparable to those required in provincial schools,” according to a Library of Parliament analysis completed for the Senate committee this month.
Unlike the provinces, Ottawa has no specific legislation governing education on reserves. (There are now-unused sections in the Indian Act that governed residential schools) Reserve schools, for the most part, are not part of education systems like those found in the provinces that include school boards and an oversight ministry.
Some First Nations, however, have developed robust education systems like in Onion Lake Cree Nation in Saskatchewan and in Kahnawake, near Montreal.
Ottawa also has two major jurisdictional education agreements with the Mi’kmaq on the East Coast and in British Columbia. Both these agreements replaced the education provisions in the Indian Act, established regional education authorities and “provided legal recognition of First Nations authority over education,” according to the analysis.
Under the Mi’kmaq Education Act, which passed in 1998, 11 First Nations provide education through the Mi’kmaw Kina’matnewey educational organization.
Under the First Nations Jurisdiction over Education in British Columbia Act, passed in 2006, First Nations can negotiate education deals with Ottawa to take over legal jurisdiction over K to 12 education. “To date there have not been any Canada-Fist nation Education jurisdiction Agreements concluded under the Act,” said the analysis.
Ottawa has also finalized six “tripartite agreements” with regional First Nation organizations, provinces and one territory. Ottawa also has a sub-regional agreement with the Saskatoon Tribal Council. These agreements, however, are not enshrined in legislation and are geared toward “practical issues” like performance standards, curriculum, data collection and tuition agreements, according to the Library of Canada analysis.
The James Bay Cree negotiated control over their own education through their James Bay agreement in 1975. The Cree control the language of instruction, design of curriculum, the hiring of teachers and school calendar.
The Harper government’s proposed bill would not impact these types of education agreements.