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Empowering Aboriginal Peoples Through Education

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For once I actually agree with former Prime Minister Paul Martin.

The occasion for this unusual situation occurred when he said:

"Most Canadians would not send their children to the kind of schools that Ottawa condemns aboriginals or certainly First Nations on reserves to go to... This is the youngest and fastest growing segment of our population. They're also the most vulnerable. And for us to essentially not give them the kind of education ... that other Canadians get, is simply wrong."

Mr. Martin made these comments when he recently appeared on a political talk show discussing the Auditor General's report and her comments on aboriginal, health, housing and education. For me to agree with Paul Martin is an extremely rare event as for years I was the head of the Conservative opposition research team whose task was to defeat him politically. Yet in spite of our differing political views we do share a concern for the future of aboriginal youth, especially on the educational front.

I believe change will come through education. Empowering the present generation of aboriginal youth with a desire to learn and a desire to grow will bring future benefits to both their communities and Canada as a whole. To ignore the situation on reserves and to ignore the issues surrounding the education of aboriginal youth will only lead to greater problems and far more expensive solutions down the road.

It is true that educational issues are only one part of an extremely complex problem that also concerns living conditions, administration, program funding and accountability and general conditions found on reserves. In that light, a few of Sheila Fraser's comments are worth noting:

"In 2010, INAC reported that the index showed little or no progress in the well-being of First Nations communities between 2001 and 2006. Instead, the average well-being of those communities continued to rank significantly below that of other Canadian communities. Conditions on too many reserves are poor and have not improved significantly... It is not always evident whether the federal government is committed to providing services on reserves of the same range and quality as those provided to other communities across Canada."

No one should ever imagine that a solution will be found by simply throwing money at the problem. It will require a willingness on both sides -- government and First Nations -- to have some frank discussions on what can and can not be done including the levels of responsibility and accountability that both must accept and agree to.

Nor should the task of finding solutions only fall on government. Business can and should play a key role as well. The business community has an opportunity to be involved in apprenticeship programs, mentoring, scholarships and job placement and recruitment.

The government and the Assembly of First Nations recently launched the "Canada First Nations Joint Action Plan." If successful, it has the potential to move several issues, including aboriginal education forward. Indeed the AFN press release clearly states that one of the objectives is "Empowering success of individuals through access to education and opportunity."

The first tentative step has been taken, now what is needed is constructive dialogue and solid results. By agreeing to this process both government and First Nations are accepting joint responsibility for its success or failure.

Finding solutions will not be easy. Now we await the results of this vital initiative which not only needs to succeed, but which must succeed.

Keith Beardsley's political pundit blog can be found at http://www.atory01.com>

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