Prime Minister Stephen Harper introduced a historic agreement Friday at Kainai high school that gives First Nations control over their education system.
The First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act sets standards for education and attendance along with stable funding.
“In Canada we have never had the system of First Nations education that we truly need,” Harper said. “The federal government, which has the constitutional responsibility for this, has historically veered between a sometimes disinterested neglect and at other times, arbitrary decrees.”
Harper noted that in 2008 he issued an apology for the federal government’s residential school policy.
“That was dealing with the past,” Harper said. “Today we are dealing with the future.”
The First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act was reached after extensive consultation with aboriginal leaders.
“The act will provide the legislative base required to ensure that youth on reserves have access to the education they need and deserve,” Harper said.
The federal government will commit $1.9-billion to support the legislation, including $1.25-billion over three years for core funding and $500-million over seven years for infrastructure.
“This is a commitment for the history books, and one that I believe is the right investment for Canada and so many First Nations students across Canada,” Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Minister Bernard Valcourt said. “Today’s announcement will prove the most important step ever taken to promote First Nations participation in the community, provincial and national economy.”
“This agreement brings us one giant step closer to our ultimate goal of reconciliation with First Nations and attests to a new beginning.”
The funding supports First Nations educations systems grounded in indigenous languages and cultures.
The act gives First Nations control of education on reserves while setting minimum standards consistent with those in the province. At present there are no minimum standards for on-reserve students.
First Nations schools must teach a core curriculum that meets or exceeds provincial standards, and students must meet minimum attendance requirements.
The legislation also requires teachers on reserve to be certified, and schools to award diplomas or certificates widely recognized.
The act also improves transparency and accountability by setting clear roles and responsibilities for First Nation education administrators.
“The legislation will end Ottawa’s unilateral authority over First Nations education, while requiring First Nations communities and parents to assume responsibility and accountability for the education their children receive,” Harper said.
First Nations education authorities will be set up to act like school boards in provincial education systems.
The First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act repeals provisions in the Indian Act related to residential schools.
“This truly is the beginning of a historic new path, not only for First Nations but for all Canadians,” Harper said.
Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo welcomed the announcement.
“We are here to commemorate a new way forward,” Atleo said, noting Kainai high school is right next to a former residential school.
Atleo said the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is helping to shine a light on that “deepest, darkest parts” of the residential school chapter of Canada’s history.
“It is so important to remember the mistakes that were made in the past,” Atleo said.
Atleo said First Nations welcome the opportunity to take control of education on reserves and develop curriculum that is inclusive of culture and language.
“We welcome what we heard from the Crown representatives, not just for now but forever.” Atleo said.
Chief Charles Weasel Head said the Blood Tribe agreed to host the news conference because of its importance to First Nations.
“My hope is today will mark an important milestone in moving forward with First Nations education,” Blood Tribe Chief Charles Weasel Head said.
Weasel Head said it is important that control of education and service delivery lie with First Nations.
“We are still very concerned about where we are going . . . but I believe we must be engaged and open to opportunity and building relationships based on trust,” Weasel Head said.
Weasel Head said the Blood Tribe is hopeful Friday’s announcement leads to further consultation and co-operation.
“We must continue to invest in our young people for their survival and true involvement in Canadian society and the economy,” Weasel Head said.
Treaty 6 representatives were at the ceremony to protest the agreement, noting the Assembly of First Nations has no authority to speak on its behalf.
“We know what we need and we’re tired of people telling us how to educate our children,” Shannon Houle said.
There is concern the money to support the new act will be taken from other programs already in place.
A pipe ceremony led by Blood Tribe elders was held prior to the announcement.
Harper, Valcourt, Atleo, Weasel Head, other First Nations leaders and people from industry gathered for a feast following the announcement.
“What we are doing today is the right thing to do not just for First Nations communities and their students,” Harper said. “It is the right thing to do for Canada.
“Aboriginal youth represent the fastest-growing segment of the population,” Harper added. “Over the next decade hundreds of thousands of young aboriginal people will be of age to enter a work force that will need them as never before.”
“Their talents and ambitions will be a critical part of the solution to Canada’s looming labour shortage. But without an education in the kind of comparable system that we envision, too many of them will be unemployed or unemployable.”