10/10/2013 05:47 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Improving First Nations Education Outcomes Must Be First Nations Led

With the start of the new Parliamentary session next week, a key part of the government's agenda is expected to be sweeping legislation dealing with First Nations' education.

Unfortunately, the Conservatives are pursuing the same flawed approach on this critical issue as last session's bills on First Nations' water, matrimonial property on reserve and various other bills impacting Aboriginal Peoples. The Conservative government has unilaterally developed a blueprint for the legislation and is now trying to characterize a number of strictly controlled information sessions over the summer as consultation. Put simply, First Nations are about to be presented with another top-down, one-size-fits-all government solution, absent proper consultation and without the necessary resources to fix the problems.

First Nations have told the government that this approach is unacceptable and will simply produce a bill that won't work. Beyond the need to both recognize First Nations jurisdiction over their own education and develop a comprehensive approach to protect language and culture, First Nations have been clear that adequate, sustainable and predictable funding must be addressed in any legislation.

But just this week the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs publically stated that he intends to push through his "reform" of the First Nations' education system first and then look at funding after. In fact, to date the federal government has stubbornly refused to even admit there is a funding gap, despite clear evidence to the contrary.

The government's own 2012 Evaluation of the Elementary/Secondary Education Program on Reserve states, "Expenditures to First Nations and tribal councils for the operation of schools do not appear to account for actual cost variability applicable to the needs and circumstances of each community or school, and particularly the cost realities associated with isolation and small population." The Canadian Chamber of Commerce summarized the issue perfectly when they said, "Funding for aboriginal education at all levels has lagged for many years, and education results have, too. It's not hard to see the connection."

The intrinsic link between the fact that only one in three First Nations youth on reserve is graduating high school and average funding for students attending school on reserve is only two thirds that of provincial systems is undeniable. But the government's response to the unacceptable Aboriginal high school graduation rate has been to deny existing funding gaps and to set an uninspiring target of just an eight per cent improvement over five years. Unfortunately, they have failed to make any progress toward their unambitious and unacceptable goal. This is just not good enough. We need a real strategy with concrete targets for substantial improvements in outcomes with the resources to get the job done. An approach that sets out what, by when, and how.

We need to engage in a renewed respectful and inclusive process with First Nations like the one that resulted in the Kelowna Accord. That bottom up process lead to a series of concrete commitments including $1.8-billion over five years to achieve both a high school graduation rate for Aboriginal people equal to other Canadians and a 50 per cent improvement in post-secondary education completion rates by 2016. Unfortunately the current government walked away from those commitments and Aboriginal young people have paid the price with Canada diminished as a result.

Canada's subsequent failure to work collaboratively with Indigenous communities to improve education outcomes for Aboriginal Peoples not only denies them equality of opportunity, but squanders a needed source of future prosperity for all Canadians. The Canadian business community understands this and believes engaging the Aboriginal population in Canada -- the youngest and fastest growing population in the country -- is fundamental to dealing with an aging population and the current disconnect between workers' skills and labour market needs.

The Canadian Chamber of Commerce has identified Canada's labour skills shortage as one of the ten biggest barriers to Canadian competitiveness and the Aboriginal population as "a huge potential workforce" that we must support more. The Canadian Council of Chief Executives' 2012 pre-budget consultations also made it clear that the government must improve education and skill levels within the Aboriginal population and expand opportunities for Aboriginal peoples to participate fully in the economy.

But turning First Nation's education outcomes around requires a process that is First Nations-led and deals with critical issues like developing a secure personal cultural identity as part of the foundation of solutions rather than an afterthought.

Liberals know that simply bringing back the Kelowna Accord eight years later is not possible, but we do believe the true partnership that led to that breakthrough holds the key to improving current education outcomes for Aboriginal Peoples. It is time to go back to the drawing board and work in true partnership with First Nations to build solutions together that will work.