12/06/2012 07:47 EST | Updated 02/05/2013 05:12 EST

Ottawa and First Nations negotiate truce on education talks

OTTAWA - The federal government has reached a deal with First Nations to get its education initiative back on track.

But just because the two sides are talking again doesn't mean they see eye to eye on how native education should be overhauled.

"We've still got a hell of a lot of hard work to do here," said one Assembly of First Nations official who spoke on the condition her name not be used.

Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan and AFN National Chief Shawn Atleo issued separate statements on Thursday night outlining their new understanding.

"Our meeting concluded with a firm commitment to continue seeking ways of working together to achieve our ultimate objective, which is improving the education and opportunities available to First Nation students," Duncan said.

Previous talks collapsed this fall because First Nations said they were not included as equal partners in designing legislation, and because federal documents suggested that funding was sufficient.

With the new outline, Duncan commits to "intensive" consultations and to explore ways to ensure stable and sufficient funding.

Those promises were also made in last spring's budget, but were reiterated in more certain terms on Thursday.

"This meeting provided an opportunity to present our views and this is the right place to start," the AFN's committee on education said in a statement.

Since fewer than half of First Nations children graduate from high school, both sides were facing criticism for allowing politics to interfere with students' future.

"Through respectful dialogue, we must put our kids first and create every opportunity for their success as is owed to them. We must do this work together and we must do so immediately," the AFN said.

A year and a half ago, the federal government and the AFN announced they would work together on a joint process to dramatically improve schooling for native kids.

The education agreement was the centrepiece of the relationship, much touted at a summit last January that included Prime Minister Stephen Harper, many cabinet ministers and the chiefs.

A task force as well as a senate committee made sweeping recommendations and Harper put $275 million in the spring budget to build new schools, among other things.

But the initiative collapsed in the fall after Duncan made announcements about how the budget money would be spent, and also included data showing that money going to native children was about the same as funding for non-native children on a per capita basis.

Critics have said the funding numbers were misleading, and regardless, so many native schools are in such rough shape they are crying out for new investment.

Even though the chiefs pulled out of the process, Duncan had vowed to forge ahead alone with legislation to create regional school-board-type arrangements that would give First Nations more autonomy over curriculum and administration.

With the new agreement, however, the process promises to be more collaborative.