Delaney Windigo Column

First Nations chiefs from across the country have rejected the controversial Bill C-33, the First Nation Control of First Nation Education Act. The Assembly of First Nations (AFN) called a special chiefs assembly, which was held in Ottawa in late May. While the AFN remains leaderless, the big topic was education.

The final decision to reject Bill C-33 came after a much heated debate. Chiefs from the prairies, Ontario and Quebec strongly opposed the legislation. At times the AFN seemed divided but what it really demonstrated is that different regions have different needs. Consequently, a one-size fits all solution does not work.

In a press release, the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations Vice Chief Bobby Cameron, said “First Nations fully respect regional diversity and each First Nations’ right to exercise jurisdiction over education.”

One Ontario chief has been at the forefront of the fight against Bill- C33. “Our decision to kill the bill was not simply a reaction by ‘rogue chiefs’, as the minister called us,” said Anishnabek Grand Council Chief Patrick Madahbee.

“This bill was vetted by technicians, lawyers, educators, parents and students. The job of our Chiefs was to listen to what our experts and citizens were telling us. What we saw in the bill was a lot of government control and no First Nations control of education for our children,” said Grand Chief Council Madahbee.

The AFN’s final resolution was not only to reject the bill but for the federal government to scrap it all together. After the chiefs in assembly essentially snubbed the bill, they still wanted the 1.9 billion dollars Bill C-33 had promised. AFN chiefs called for the immediate release of those funds (much of which was not intended to flow until 2015). The chiefs also called for the core funding to grow at an annual rate of 4.5 per cent.

The AFN’s financial demands would likely be a kick start to closing the funding gap between provincial and on-reserve schools. The only problem now is getting an aggravated Aboriginal Affairs minister to agree to release the 1.9 billion dollars.

One has to question how realistic the AFN is in their financial demands. Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt has said the federal government will not go ahead with its plan without the backing of the AFN.

So where does this put the lives of First Nations children? There is now a lack of a financial commitment from the Harper government and a seemingly unwillingness for both sides to work together. One could only surmise that it will be back to the status quo for First Nations children.

First Nations children are part of the fastest growing demographic and Canada cannot continue to ignore their educational needs. This is the group of children who will one day be looked at to fill the gap in an already aging labour force.

It is also time for provincial governments to step up. Although First Nations children attending school on-reserve fall under the jurisdiction of the federal government, they are still citizens of their respective province and therefore, they are the responsibility of all levels of government.

It is time for First Nations children to be given a fair and equal chance. That, however, is difficult when their libraries do not have books, their schools do not have science labs and some are forced to attend school in dilapidated buildings.

First Nations leaders believe it is time for First Nations to take control of their future. Regardless of what happens next in the fight of First Nation control of First Nation education, all levels of government must remember education is not just a treaty right, it’s also a right under the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of the Child. First Nations children deserve equal access to a quality education. That is their right. To make that happen, the federal government and First Nations leaders need to work together.

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