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Thursday, December 11, 2008

Education: Aboriginal School Boards ... imposed without consultation?

In the opinion of the National Post ..

Native chiefs would rather blame Ottawa than change

New Strahl plan has potential, if given the chance

John Ivison, National Post Published: Thursday, December 11, 2008

OTTAWA -Jamie Wilson is the 40-year-old director of education for the Opaskwayak Educational Authority, near Le Pas in Manitoba. He has three university degrees, used to be a U. S. Army Ranger and is one of the new generation of can-do aboriginal leaders who recognize that not all the failures of Canada's relationship with its First Nations can be laid at Ottawa's door.

The problem is that much of the aboriginal leadership is still in the hands of people who are so caught up in complaining about the shortcomings of the federal government that Ottawa gets blamed for everything except the weather. "It's frustrating to be caught up in it," Mr. Wilson said.

Everyone agrees that reforming aboriginal education policies is crucial, not just for the well-being of native people, but also because this country is likely to suffer chronic labour shortages when the Baby Boom generation starts to retire. And everyone, including Chuck Strahl, the Indian Affairs Minister, agrees that the current situation -- in which schools are usually run by local bands that have neither the expertise nor the resources to do it well -- is not working. Only four out of 10 aboriginal Canadians between the ages of 25 and 44 have a high school diploma, compared to nine out of 10 non-native Canadians.

But that's where the consensus ends. The government wants to roll out a plan that sees individual band schools grouped into aboriginal-run boards working with provincial governments and aboriginal organizations. This approach was pioneered in British Columbia and New Brunswick.

Yesterday, the Assembly of First Nations made clear it wants nothing to do with that idea.

Last week, unnoticed amid the mayhem on Parliament Hill, the government introduced two programs it hopes will lay the foundations for long-term reform of First Nations education: the education partnerships program and the First Nation student success program, to be financed with $268-million that was earmarked in the last budget. The partnerships initiative offers funding to First Nations that negotiate an education agreement with Ottawa and their respective provinces. The student success plan makes money available for schools that introduce a plan to improve education outcomes and then submit to learning assessments and performance measurement.

Under the new system, native-run school boards would be involved in professional development of teachers, curriculum development and centralized procurement.

Funding remains an issue. Fairness demands that the federal government fund the First Nations school system to the same level as the provinces fund non-native boards -- something that is currently not the case. Ottawa funded the average native student $6,916 in 2006-7, according to their own figures. The provincial average in that year, according to Statistics Canada, was $8,165. That masks even bigger funding gaps in provinces such as Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, where the gap is close to $3,000 a year.

Mr. Strahl hopes to sell native leaders on his plan today at a special meeting of the AFN in Ottawa. But the chiefs have already signalled their opposition. They met to discuss education at a special assembly yesterday and rejected the government's new program proposals out of hand.

Chief Tyrone McNeil, a member of the chiefs committee on education from British Columbia, said the Minister had "dictated" the new policy, without consultation with chiefs.

"Any new program needs to support current successes," he said. When it was put to him that the government believed the B. C. model was a success and this is why it was rolling it out elsewhere, he said Mr. Strahl was taking a model developed by First Nations and "forcing it on other regions."

This is typical of the myopic leadership that has helped keep Canada's aboriginal population in a vicious circle of poverty and hopelessness the chiefs claim can be broken only by more federal cash.

Many band chiefs across Canada do not want to lose control of their schools -- or, more particularly, the funding that flows to them from the federal government, which would be redirected to the new aboriginal-run education authorities under the government's scheme.

Fortunately, leaders such as Mr. Wilson are emerging -- people who argue that the situation is so dire it requires major structural reform. For Mr. Wilson, it is no longer about who controls education. "We fought hard for that control," he said, "but now we need to take responsibility."

The Strahl plan has potential, in Mr. Wilson's opinion. He would like to see some of the suggestions codified in law -- for example, a new piece of legislation that set national standards for aboriginal education in areas such as the number of school days, teacher qualification requirements and rules of school boards.

"There is a very real need for First Nations Education Act. We need to build a system," Mr. Wilson said. Crucially, he said, the argument needs to move beyond the issue of control and focus on responsibility.

"Unsuccessful schools have one thing in common--everyone blames each other. The Grade 4 teacher blames the Grade 2 teacher; the teachers blame the parents; and so on. No one takes responsibility. In successful schools, everyone takes responsibility for education outcomes," he said.

So far, the response from the chiefs has been sadly lacking. This is tragic because it is their ideas and leadership that will be the prime mover in lifting their people out of poverty, not the size of the cheque they receive from Ottawa.

Mr Ivison misses the point: Neither the "ideas and leadership" of the chiefs nor of any others in Aboriginal communities have been sought.

It is appalling that INAC is trying to unilaterally impose an education program without any input from teachers nor from parents whose children will be affected.

I get it. There are funds available to be distributed. The truth is out: Aboriginal education is underfunded in comparison to public education. That must be corrected.

The strings attached are intended to create a necessity to focus on results ... desired outcomes for students. I think there is something useful there, but it must allow for local curriculum, locally defined outcomes, locally developed assessment, local decisions about allocation of funds, etc., and somehow I don't think that's how Strahl/Harper sees it.

The unilateral imposition of a rigid program making rigid demands is self-defeating. It may be time to offer the program as an option for local choice. However, Harper is not known for his understanding of human reactions, and often shoots himself in the foot this way, as he has now yet again, with lack of consultation.

All people want is to be involved in the problem-solving planning process, rather than having so-called 'solutions' imposed from Ottawa.


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My Canada includes rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Two Row Wampum Treaty

Two Row Wampum Treaty
"It is said that, each nation shall stay in their own vessels, and travel the river side by side. Further, it is said, that neither nation will try to steer the vessel of the other." This is a treaty among Indigenous Nations, and with Canada. This is the true nature of our relationships with Indigenous Nations of 'Kanata'.