Local Aboriginal leaders are speaking out against the Conservatives' recently tabled federal education bill, saying it doesn't reflect the regional diversity of B.C.'s First Nations and was developed without adequate consultation.
Bill C-33, known as the First Nations Control of First Nations Education, was tabled earlier this month after proposals to improve on-reserve education across Canada were largely rejected by Aboriginal officials, spurring the resignation of Shawn Atleo, the national leader of the Assembly of First Nations, who earlier lent his support to the legislation.
First Nations Schools Association executive and Mount Currie school administrator, Verna Stager, who attended several Vancouver hearings with government officials while the bill was in the developmental stages, said the process was largely one-sided.
"The main thing is that it wasn't co-developed," she said. "(Federal officials) really didn't have an open ear, and when anybody was saying something contrary to what was in the bill, they would say, 'Perhaps I didn't explain this clearly'... There was no way to get input in. That's not a form of communication."
Some of the major criticisms surrounding the bill focus on the proposal to create a new Joint Council of Education Professionals that would be appointed by Ottawa to advise Minister of Aboriginal Affairs Bernard Valcourt.
"We don't know who would be on the advisory joint council of education that would be professionals who would call the shots," said Stager. "It would be very disruptive to B.C. if (the federal government) had some kind of different plan or ideas, because in B.C. right now we are working on professional learning communities and having teachers working cooperatively, and we are really concentrating on student learning. So a teacher could have the greatest plans in the world and deliver them in a great manner, but if the students haven't learned, that's not good enough."
Stager cited the strong performance and recent improvements at B.C.'s 130 First Nations schools, and said a generalized education plan — that would have included a $1.9-billion boost in spending over several years — would not consider the many regional and educational differences between Canada's more than 600 nations.
It's a position that Squamish Nation councillor Chris Lewis reiterated.
"In B.C., we have our own First Nations education system, and also our own Tripartite Education Framework agreement... so it's a little bit different here in British Columbia than the rest of the country and we just find the proposed Bill C-33 doesn't respect that," he said. "I think what the minister has to do now is really recognize that diversity in First Nations country and understand that a pan-Aboriginal or a pan-First Nations bill is not going to work."
A 2013 study by C.D. Howe Institute on Aboriginal student performance across Canada found that "British Columbia's most impressive educational achievement is that of its on-reserve subgroup," with its K-12 incomplete rate the lowest among the six provinces with the largest Aboriginal populations.
Another concern raised by Aboriginal leaders is that the legislation would mean school inspections would be covered at each school's expense, as well as giving the ministry the ability to replace administrators with temporary staff — officials without First Nations' educational experience — of Ottawa's choosing.
Lewis said it's essential that Aboriginal educators dictate First Nations' students learning.
"Our First Nations teachers understand the uniqueness of educational needs, they understand that they're dealing with the intergenerational effects of residential schools and they know they're dealing with the abject poverty that's still prevalent in our communities, so all of the struggles that our First Nations children go through throughout their lifespan, a lot of our educators know that struggle and understand how to tackle it through implementing our culture and traditions into educational curriculum," he said.
The already tense relationship between Ottawa and Canada's First Nations was tested further last week after a group of chiefs threatened to shut down the national economy if the controversial bill is not withdrawn.
The internal statement drafted by the Confederacy of Nations, a governing body within the Assembly of First Nations, was not intended to be publicized and was not vetted by the group, although "it reflects some of the frustration that some of the chiefs are experiencing," according to Grand Chief Derek Nepinak, from the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, in an interview with CBC's Power & Politics program. Minister Valcourt responded by saying he would not meet with "rogue chiefs" and believes the Confederacy of Nations doesn't reflect the views of the majority of First Nations chiefs and councils.
A special chiefs assembly is scheduled for May 27 in Ottawa, where Lewis said the Squamish Nation would present its official stance on the proposed bill.