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Education to Top First Nations–PM Agenda

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Education reform tops the list of issues mentioned in Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s letter to Assembly of First Nations Chief Shawn Atleo in a recent offer to meet, according to a copy retrieved by ICTMN.

“We agree that this matter is an important priority for advancement,” Harper said in his December 8, 2010, letter, which Atleo shared with fellow First Nations leaders following a special assembly a week later. “As you are aware, the government has publicly committed to working with First Nation groups and other willing partners to develop options, including new legislation, to improve the governance framework and clarify accountability for First Nation elementary and secondary education.”

The two discussed education in an informal meeting in October, and Harper alluded to their discussion, saying, “the government views the Assembly of First Nations as an important partner in advancing First Nation Education reform.”

Harper’s offer comes soon after creation of a blue-ribbon panel to review reserve education and ways to bring it up to par with that of the rest of the nation. The panel would convene early this year and make recommendations on its findings in the middle of 2011, Indian Affairs minister John Duncan said in December, the Aboriginal broadcasting network APTN reported.

“Today, I am announcing that our government is creating an expert panel to look at options, including legislation, to improve K to 12 outcomes,” said Duncan, in the House of Commons during question period.

The AFN will help develop the panel’s mandate and have input into who serves, APTN said. Atleo welcomed the move as just the thing that First Nations need, according to the network.

“We do not need or want a lengthy study. We need action now,” said Atleo. “Improving First Nations education is a top priority for First Nations leadership right across the country as affirmed by our assembly almost exactly one year ago.”

At issue is the way children are taught on reservations. The Toronto Globe and Mail reports that Canada has about 110,000 children of aboriginal identity under age five.

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“Based on current conditions, we could expect that most will live in poverty and that only half will graduate from high school,” the newspaper said in a Dec. 23 story.

“There are many reasons for this discouraging outlook, and not the least is the sad fact that there is no First Nation school system,” the Globe continues. “Most First Nation schools are stuck in the old model of the village school that existed prior to rural school consolidation.”

Moreover, the Globe says, “40 per cent of aboriginal people in their early 20s do not have a high-school diploma, compared to 13 per cent of the non-aboriginal population. And just 8 per cent of aboriginals have graduated with a university degree, compared to 23 per cert of non-aboriginals.”

APTN said Harper’s agreement to meet “reveals how much headway the AFN national chief has made with the Conservative government.”

With guarded optimism, the network said, “Harper’s direct involvement on the education file also seems to heighten the likelihood the recently appointed blue-ribbon panel commissioned to study education may lead to concrete reforms.”

It noted the concern from AFN chiefs “who worry the panel is just a rerun of previous government-initiated studies that led to nowhere.”

That refers to a 2002 committee made up of representatives from the provinces, universities and First Nations education organizations to study First Nations education. “The report, however, led to little if any action and continues to gather dust.”

This time, though, Harper has also directed top officials to work with the AFN and with the country’s ministry of Indian affairs on a range of reforms.