Aboriginal ministers want to develop a national education strategy

By Tanya TalagaQueen's Park Bureau


Shawn Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, was in Toronto on Wednesday to address the annual meeting of provincial aboriginal affairs ministers.

Shawn Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, was in Toronto on Wednesday to address the annual meeting of provincial aboriginal affairs ministers.


Canada’s provincial aboriginal affairs ministers say they can’t move forward on sweeping educational reforms needed to fix the woeful state of First Nations education without Ottawa’s support.

And they also said it’s hard to work with Ottawa if they don’t come to the meetings.

Fresh after the Crown-First Nations gathering in Ottawa and a sweeping report by a national panel on how to reform aboriginal education, provincial and territorial ministers met in Toronto Wednesday for their annual working group summit.

Ontario Aboriginal Affairs Minister Kathleen Wynne said “there was disappointment around the table that the federal government wasn’t here to engage with us.”

The ministers want to help develop a national education strategy. They are pushing Ottawa to use part of the $275 million earmarked for native education in the federal budget to help them close the graduation gap, said Wynne.

“It is not clear exactly what that money is going to be used for now,” said Wynne, who chaired the meeting.

The ministers decried the lack of federal participation at the meeting even though federal Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan was invited a few times, said Wynne.

“We’ve been asking for a first ministers meeting on these issues and we are going to send another request on that,” she said.

Ottawa has the primary responsibility of First Nations on reserve and the fiduciary relationship should never be forgotten, said Manitoba’s Aboriginal Affairs Minister Eric Robinson.

“Many of the issues we are talking about today are largely reliant on the federal government,” he said. “We’d think in future meetings the federal government would be more engaged.”

First Nations must now take the lead and push their own solutions on how to improve education, said Shawn Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations.

Atleo believes if they can do that, Ottawa will listen.

“The Prime Minister said explicitly on Jan. 24 that he would support the implementation of jointly agreed to recommendations,” said Atleo. “So it is up to First Nations to review, not only the joint panel report, but reams of reports going back 30 years calling for changes in education and to identify what each agrees to and how we’ll jointly implement that.”

The state of First Nations education in Canada has been called a national crisis. Less than half of aboriginal youth complete high school, and only 8 per cent of First Nations, Métis and Inuit collectively have a university degree.

“It must be First Nations leading the way,” Atleo said from the Sheraton Hotel. “It is time for solutions.”

Last February, a national blue ribbon panel recommended key reforms on how to build a First Nations education system. One with regional school boards, teacher and student standards and proper funding.

Over 40 schools are needed on reserves across the country and some of the existing facilities are simply inadequate, he said. Some schools do not have clean drinking water, the buildings are mouldy and often there are no libraries, computers or properly trained teachers.

The kindergarten to Grade 12 system currently in place is under federal control and “everyone agrees that doesn’t make sense, but we seemingly have been unable to break this pattern of Ottawa-centric decision-making for things like K-12 education.”

Ontario is working with the Union of Ontario Indians to develop an education plan for the children in those 39 communities and at the same time they are working with the federal government, said Wynne.

The ministers also discussed early childhood education programs and all agreed they must address the disappearance or deaths of 600 aboriginal girls and women over the last 20 years. “It is a national disgrace,” Robinson said.