One of the most urgent topics up for discussion at Tuesday's Crown-First Nations gathering is also the one most likely to see concrete progress in the coming weeks: the gap between the educational outcomes of aboriginal and non-aboriginal children.
Fewer than half of First Nations students both on and off reserve graduate from high school, compared to more than 80 per cent of other Canadian young people. Non-aboriginal students are more than 10 times more likely to graduate from university.
It's a stark discrepancy that bodes ill for the future, especially considering the rapid growth in the school-age aboriginal population across Canada. For example, one estimate suggests that in the province of Saskatchewan, where the economy otherwise has grown significantly in recent years, more than one in five people entering the work force over the next 15 years will be aboriginal.
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"We all recognize the urgency," says B.C. Conservative Senator Gerry St. Germain, who chairs the Senate's Aboriginal Peoples committee, which released a report in December on reforming First Nations education. "This is a social nightmare if we don't deal with this properly."
St. Germain is on his way to Ottawa to serve as a moderator for the session at the Crown-First Nations gathering Tuesday that will be focused on education issues. He has worked closely with Prime Minister Stephen Harper on First Nations issues, in particular the government's historic apology for Indian Residential Schools.
First Nations leaders from across Canada are meeting in Ottawa on Monday to co-ordinate priorities and strategy in advance of Tuesday's gathering.
Although St. Germain doesn't want to raise expectations before consulting with First Nations leaders, he sees a potential turning point on the horizon for the federal government's role in First Nations education.
"If the stars line up the way they should, this should be discussed and taken seriously," St. Germain says. "Education is always first and foremost," he adds, noting that it has been emphasized by not only the prime minister but also National Chief Shawn Atleo from the Assembly of First Nations, for whom education is a personal priority.
"We have more post-secondary graduates than we've ever had in our history, but we are at risk though of losing a generation if we don't move in an urgent fashion now," Atleo told CBC News.
National panel reports in February
A national panel on First Nations education, convened jointly by the federal government and the AFN, is expected to deliver recommendations to the prime minister and the national chief next month.
The panel's final report had been expected before the end of 2011, but the volume of input it received reportedly delayed its progress. The panel conducted eight regional "engagement sessions" as well as a national roundtable in late November to study the latest academic research and solicit ideas from First Nations participants. It was still collecting feedback well into December.
Some First Nations groups, including the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations as well as others in Ontario and Quebec, refused to participate in the panel, fearing the federal government intended to use it en route to drafting create “one-size-fits-all” education legislation.
New First Nations education legislation was central to the findings of St. Germain's Senate committee, which recommended a new structure of native school boards to coordinate Aboriginal education across Canada.
Currently each individual First Nation is on its own to establish curriculum and operate schools.
The other main recommendation in the Senate report concerned the funding of First Nations schools — not how much, but simply how.
The current Indian Act stipulates that the federal government has a responsibility to fund First Nations education, but no framework, standards or specific formula is specified for that funding.
Federal government transfers to communities that could have been spent on education sometimes end up being spent on housing or other urgent infrastructure needs, leading to a dysfunctional school system rife with disparities.
First Nations leaders find the current grant-based funding unpredictable. The federal Auditor General has criticized the funding model (or lack thereof) for making it difficult for communities to plan for the future.
St. Germain suggests that if an alternative system were set up in co-ordination with both aboriginal leaders and the educational expertise of the provinces, individual First Nations could opt out of the old Indian Act and into a better financed and hopefully higher-quality First Nations education system, overseen by a network of aboriginal school boards.
But the senator says their work didn't envision a single approach for all communities.
"Regions have different needs," St. Germain says. "You can't make it for the entire country."
He says the response to his committee's work from First Nations was mostly positive and he believes the prime minister is serious about wanting to act.
"You can't go at everything at one time," the senator says, echoing the prime minister's stated preference for incremental progress, adding that if the national panel's report is "what I think it will be, I don't think it can be ignored."
The recommendations of a 2006 Senate committee report on the specific land claims process directly resulted in the Specific Claims Tribunal Act introduced by former Indian Affairs minister Jim Prentice, which received Royal Assent in 2008. St. Germain hopes the relative simplicity and strong rationale behind his committee's latest work, combined with similar findings from the national panel next month, will pave the way for a new Aboriginal school system.
But not before First Nations leaders have their say this week.
Education reforms on table
Speaking to CBC News on Sunday, AFN Regional Chief George Stanley from the Frog Lake First Nation in northern Alberta expressed skepticism about "the PM's agenda" that leaders were set to discuss on Tuesday, suggesting the event could amount to little more than a photo opportunity for a Conservative government that has failed to organize this kind of meeting until now, despite its six years in power.
"But when we are talking about education, that's something different," Stanley said, suggesting he has strong feelings about the need for progress in this area.
Stanley pointed out that the "Crown" in the Crown-First Nations gathering actually refers to the Governor General, not the prime minister.
Gov. Gen. David Johnston, himself a former university president, also speaks passionately about the need for better education for Canada's aboriginal population. Johnston is scheduled to speak at Tuesday's meeting and play a prominent role in the gathering.
Speaking to CBC Radio's The House on Saturday, Greg Rickford, the parliamentary secretary to Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan, suggested that despite pressures to cut budgets in every federal government department, "there are key areas that we must protect," including the federal funding for aboriginal skills training and education.
The economic incentives for improving education outcomes are strong. A recent study by the Centre for the Study of Living Standards estimated that Canada could gain about $515.5 billion in increased productivity and saved expenses over 25 years if First Nations individuals had the same education and employment outcomes as the average Canadian.
More than half of Canada's First Nations population is under 25.