The recent decision by the Assembly of First Nations to reject Ottawa's musings about reforming on-reserve education was an example of a react-first, ask-questions later approach. It was unhelpful, most of all to First Nations kids.
For one thing, the government's upcoming First Nation Education legislation hasn't even been created; it won't be introduced in Parliament until 2014. But that didn't stop AFN leader Shawn Atleo, in early October, from rejecting possible reforms two years in advance. Atleo and other Native politicians should reconsider, especially given the dismal state of on-reserve education for much of the aboriginal population.
Education statistics from the 2006 census make clear the need for reform (2011 results are not yet available): 50 per cent of "Registered Indians" do not have even a high school diploma. In comparison, just 23 per cent of other Canadians lack a high school diploma.
But opposition to reform is at least as entrenched as the need for it.
Part of the opposition is driven by a healthy suspicion of remedies imposed by Ottawa. Some native leaders dislike federal diktats just as premiers would if they were told how to run their education bureaucracies.
However, John Duncan, federal aboriginal affairs minister, already made clear that the legislation will only be drafted after "intensive consultation" with First Nations. So it's a bit much to oppose possible reforms now.
Moreover, if such education reforms turn out to be voluntary, as they must be if parents and local reserve leaders are to support them, the notion anyone will be forced to do anything is a non-issue.
In addition, until reserves are self-sustaining out of locally-created revenues, other taxpayers who provide the $1.7 billion now spent annually for on-reserve education for 117,500 children (with another $275-million announced by Duncan) also deserve some say in how such monies will be spent in the future.
The deeper reason some native leaders may oppose any new thinking about education is the same reason some are opposed to reform of the reserve system itself: reforms may weaken the influence of leaders over those who live on reserves. But such reform is needed, including options for off-reserve education.
The relative success of off-reserve First Nations kids versus those on reserve is revealing. A 2009 report from Statistics Canada found that seven out of 10 off-reserve First Nations children (78,325 of them) were reported by their parents to be doing "very well" or "well" in school. Also, the parents of more than 90 per cent of such children "agreed" or "strongly agreed" that their child's school gave enough information about academic progress, attendance and behaviour.
The statistical agency reported that those findings are similar to those reported (by their parents) for non-native children.
That noted, parental satisfaction is not the same as achievement equal to non-native children.
First Nations young people in provincial schools do not complete high school at the same rate as their off-reserve, non-native classmates, this also according to Statistics Canada. However, they do have higher completion rates than students who live on-reserve.
For example, 50 per cent of the First Nations people aged 25 to 64 living on-reserve had not completed high school. That compares to 30 per cent of First Nations people who live off-reserve.
Also, only 14 per cent of those on reserve had a college diploma, whereas the figure for First Nations people off-reserve was 20 per cent. Similarly, just four per cent of those living on-reserve had a university degree; that compares to nine per cent for First Nations people off-reserve.
Whenever the possibility of mixing more First Nations kids with non-native kids is brought up, some immediately have concerns over possible forced assimilation given past attempts to such an end. But integration (attending class with non-natives) is not assimilation. One can be Jewish in a public school without losing one's heritage and faith.
To have children rub shoulders with other kids of different backgrounds is something most people value. Most parents want their children to be exposed to others that think and live differently. It is how kids learn to appreciate and value diversity; it is how they become more tolerant.
First Nations children are doing better in off-reserve schools and their parents are mostly happy with how such schools perform. Given that reality, such types of education (along with many other choices) should also be part of the menu of educational options available to improve future outcomes for Canada's First Nation children.
FIRST NATIONS PROTESTS: FROM OKA TO CALEDONIA
Canadian soldier Patrick Cloutier and Saskatchewan Native Brad Laroque alias "Freddy Kruger" come face to face in a tense standoff at the Kahnesatake reserve in Oka, Quebec, Saturday September 1, 1990. Twenty plus years after an armed standoff at Oka laid Canada's often difficult relationship with its native peoples bare in international headlines, the bitterly contested land remains in legal limbo. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Shaney Komulainen)
A warrior raises his weapon as he stands on an overturned police vehicle blocking a highway at the Kahnesetake reserve near Oka, Quebec July 11, 1990 after a police assault to remove Mohawk barriers failed. Twenty plus years after an armed standoff at Oka laid Canada's often difficult relationship with its native peoples bare in international headlines, the bitterly contested land remains in legal limbo. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tom Hanson)
A Quebec Metis places a stick with an eagle feather tied to it into the barrel of a machine gun mounted on an army armored vehicle at Oka Thursday, Aug. 23, 1990. The vehicle was one of two positioned a few metres away from the barricade causing a breakdown in negotiations. Twenty plus years after an armed standoff at Oka laid Canada's often difficult relationship with its native peoples bare in international headlines, the bitterly contested land remains in legal limbo. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Bill Grimshaw)
A Mohawk Indian winds up to punch a soldier during a fight that took place on the Khanawake reserve on Montreal's south shore in 1990. The army broke up the fight by shooting into the air. Twenty plus years after an armed standoff at Oka laid Canada's often difficult relationship with its native peoples bare in international headlines, the bitterly contested land remains in legal limbo. (CP PHOTO)
Two aboriginal protesters man a barricade near the entrance to Ipperwash Provincial Park, near Ipperwash Beach, Ont., on Sept. 7, 1995. (CP PHOTO)
Ken Wolf, 9, walks away from a graffiti-covered smoldering car near the entrance to the Ipperwash Provincial Park in this September 7, 1995 photo. A group of aboriginal protesters were occupying the park and nearby military base. (CP PHOTO)
Caledonian activist Gary McHale (right) is confronted by a Six Nations Protester as he attempts to lead members of Canadian Advocates for Charter Equality (CANACE) in carrying a makeshift monument to Six Nations land in Caledonia, Ont., on Sunday February 27, 2011. CANACE claim inequality in treatment for Caledonian residents from Ontario Provincial Police compared to that of the Six Nation population. They planned to plant a monument of six nation property to demand an apology from the OPP, but were turned back by protesters. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young
First Nations people of the Grand River Territory stand with protest signs as they force the redirection of the Vancover 2010 Olympic Torch Relay from entering The Six Nations land Monday, December 21, 2009 near Caledonia, Ontario. The Olympic torch's journey across Canada was forced to take a detour in the face of aboriginal opposition to the Games, with an Ontario First Nation rerouting its relay amid a protest from a splinter group in the community. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Dave Chidley)
Six Nations protesters guard the front entrance of a housing development in Hagersville, Ont., just south of the 15-month aboriginal occupation at Caledonia on Wednesday, May 23, 2007. The protest was peaceful. (CP PHOTO/Nathan Denette)
Mohawk protestors block a road near the railway tracks near Marysville, Ont. with a bus and a bonfire Friday April 21, 2006. The natives showed their support to fellow natives in Caledonia, Ont. where they were in a stand off with police regarding land claims.(CP PHOTO/Jonathan Hayward)