04/10/2014 10:50 EDT | Updated 06/10/2014 05:59 EDT

First Nations Education Act Tabled Amid Criticism From Some Aboriginal Groups


OTTAWA - The federal government has tabled its First Nations education bill despite complaints from some aboriginal organizations that it skimps on funding and fails to give natives direct control of their education systems.

Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt defended Bill C-33, dubbed the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act, saying it meets the five conditions outlined by the Assembly of First Nations and chiefs during a meeting in December.

"All the concerns they expressed are being addressed," Valcourt told reporters on Thursday. He added that he hopes those chiefs opposed to the legislation will come around after reading it.

The bill — which provides $1.3 billion over three years to First Nations starting in 2016 — outlines ways in which aboriginal communities can band together to effectively form school boards while receiving sustainable funding, a government official told a technical briefing shortly before the bill was introduced in Parliament.

The official said the funding will flow to 600 First Nations the same way that provincial school boards currently receive funding.

The legislation, however, also gives Valcourt, as the federal aboriginal affairs minister, the power to impose third-party management on under-performing schools — something that has irked some First Nations.

It creates a so-called joint council of education experts, appointed by the minister and First Nations, who will report to Ottawa about how aboriginal schools are performing. Schools will be required to hire inspectors to ensure the schools are adhering to the act and meeting standards for the amount of instruction hours, teacher performance and curriculum.

That inspector reports to the joint council. Wayward schools will be placed under emergency management by the federal government.

Valcourt insisted on Thursday that the joint councils will merely provide Ottawa with information on how the schools are performing, not give the feds direct control. The councils, in fact, prevent "unilateral oversight by the minister."

Some of the country's First Nations have rejected Ottawa's efforts, saying all authority remains in the hands of the federal government under the legislation and that natives continue to lack any control over their education systems.

They also say funding is insufficient.

Vice Chief Bobby Cameron of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations says aboriginals have treaty rights to education under international law that cannot take a back seat to federal legislation.

He adds that the federal government failed to consult in any serious way with First Nations and have ignored all concerns raised by aboriginal organizations.

"We continue to urge our First Nations in Saskatchewan to develop their own education acts to protect their inherent and treaty right to education," he said in a statement. "We will safeguard the future of our children."

But Shawn Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, expressed cautious support of the bill, saying he would continue to push for total First Nations control of their schools.

"I see the key elements reflected and now First Nations must have the opportunity to fully review and fully engage on the next steps," he told a Parliament Hill news conference. "I encourage all First Nations to do the analysis."

He added: "We do want to see the minister out of our lives."

Atleo appeared with Stephen Harper in Alberta in February as the prime minister unveiled his government's retooled plan to reform First Nations education. The chief assured his regional counterparts that the Conservatives had agreed to conditions set out last year that threatened to derail the reform process.

Those conditions called on the government to ensure aboriginal communities retain control of education, and to provide a statutory funding guarantee, recognition of First Nations languages and culture, shared oversight and ongoing, meaningful engagement.

Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada says that in 2011-12, it spent about $1.55 billion on First Nations education from kindergarten to Grade 12, and another $322 million on First Nations and Inuit students pursuing post-secondary education.

That’s on top of about $200 million spent on infrastructure for schools and classrooms.

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