OTTAWA - The federal government is proposing a sweeping education overhaul on First Nations reserves to bring aboriginal schools up to provincial standards in a purported attempt to put the brakes to a cycle of poverty among aboriginals.
The Conservatives tabled a draft of the First Nations Education Act late Tuesday that would see Ottawa set and enforce standards for schools on aboriginal reserves, and wrest temporary control of those that fail to make the grade.
"Our government firmly believes that all First Nation students across Canada deserve access to a school system that meets provincial and territorial standards, while respecting First Nation culture, language, rights and treaties," Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt said in a statement.
"The draft legislative proposal for First Nation education would put in place a system that is accountable to students, and ensures that First Nation students have access, like all Canadians, to a good education."
The government has long held that substandard schooling and academic performance has played a significant role in impoverishing native Canadians. The First Nations Education Act is the centrepiece of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's aboriginal affairs agenda.
A recent C.D. Howe Institute report determined that almost half of aboriginal students nationwide fail to get to Grade 12. The study found Manitoba had the worst record of six provinces with substantial aboriginal populations, with 63 per cent of natives failing to graduate high school.
"First Nation youth represent the fastest growing segment of the population in Canada yet they have one of the lowest graduation rates," Valcourt added in his statement.
"Our government has listened to the calls from First Nation leadership, educators, technicians and youth who are unhappy with the current 'non-system' that has been failing First Nation students for years. This draft legislative proposal is a significant step forward."
The government's 32-page draft bill, arriving as major unrest and discontent continues to simmer among First Nations communities, calls for an outside inspector to review school standards and performance every year on native reserves, and to make suggestions for improvement when necessary.
If the inspector finds that "major and persistent problems" aren't being dealt with by First Nations, Ottawa can then appoint a temporary official to manage schools, particularly if there are "major risks to students' safety and outcomes."
Leading up to the unveiling of the legislation, aboriginal leaders cautioned the government against exerting too much control over First Nations.
Tyrone McNeil, president of the Vancouver-based First Nations Education Steering Committee, said a federal cash infusion for First Nations schools is the most critical issue at hand, and accused the government of treating funding "only as an after-thought" in its draft legislation.
"It's really upsetting and disconcerting ... the funding is missing, and adequately investing in First Nations education is in the interest of all Canadians," he said Tuesday night.
"The really hurtful piece of this is that the federal government is going to be more demanding, yet we'll be funded less and expected to do more, and then be held accountable for that. And there's very little accountability to parents and communities; all the accountability goes back to the minister. It's ludicrous."
Other aboriginal groups and education advocates have warned that the Harper government risks repeating the paternalistic mistakes of the past in its proposals. The Conservatives, meantime, say the legislation is ultimately aimed at giving First Nations control over their own education.
Carolyn Bennett, the Liberals' aboriginal affairs critic, urged the government to rethink its strategy.
"The Conservatives should push pause on this flawed, top-down strategy, sit down with First Nations communities and build a workable, fully funded plan that respects, supports and empowers First Nations to control their own education systems," she said in a statement.
First Nations are pressing for more say over everything from education to local governance and resource development. The so-called Idle No More movement has also been demanding a dialogue between Ottawa and First Nations about how their communities are funded and accountability for the money that's spent.
There have also been tensions over resource development projects that have spilled over political lines.
Members of New Brunswick's Elsipogtog First Nation celebrated Monday after a judge in that province lifted an injunction that ordered them to end their blockade outside a compound owned by SWN Resources. They oppose a shale gas development due to environmental concerns, fearing the impact on local drinking water supplies.
The Harper government released a so-called blueprint document this summer that promised to give First Nations authority over and accountability for their education programs.
But since then, several groups have urged Ottawa to abandon the blueprint, saying it doesn't meet standards set out by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
The UN, meantime, announced earlier this month that it's launching a probe into Canada's human rights record with its aboriginal people.
The government is calling for feedback on its draft legislation before introducing it in the House of Commons.
Under the legislation, aboriginal councils remain responsible for schools on their reserves with the option to contract out work to provincial school boards or private educators if they'd prefer.
The bill also allows native councils to form First Nations education authorities that could control all the aboriginal schools in various regions of the country. Those authorities could hire teachers and principals, manage budgets and develop curricula that meets provincial standards while focusing on aboriginal culture and language.