(Vicki Monague drove six hours from Beausoleil First Nation to confront AFN National Chief Shawn Atleo over his support for education bill. APTN/Jason Leroux)
By Jorge Barrera
APTN National News
Vicki Monague drove six hours from her home community of Beausoleil First Nation to Ottawa in hopes of confronting Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo over his support for the Harper government’s proposed First Nation education bill to govern reserve schools.
Monague said she embarked on the trip not in her capacity as a Beausoleil band councillor but as a mother of three school-aged children. Beausoleil First Nation spans three islands in the southern tip of Georgian Bay and sits about 458 kilometres west of Ottawa.
Monague said she believes the proposed bill, called the First Nation Control of First Nation Education Act, as a threat to the future of her children.
“The bill reinforces the Indian Act,” said Monague, during an interview Monday outside the glass doors leading to Atleo’s 16th floor AFN office in Ottawa. “If you read the act, it says the minister has discretion over and over again. We need to control our own education systems and we need to ensure our language and culture are going to continue for future generations.”
Monague was told by the AFN’s director of operations Guy Poirier that Atleo wasn’t in his office, but she could meet with the organization’s CEO Peter Dinsdale. Monague agreed and she was directed to wait in a glass-walled boardroom overlooking downtown Ottawa. Linda Nothing, an Indigenous activist living in Ottawa from Bearskin Lake First Nation, and Carl Chaboyer, from the Cree Cultural Institute in Ouje-Bougoumou, Que., also sat in on the meeting.
Poirier ejected an APTN National News crew accompanying Monague from the AFN’s headquarters saying, “This is AFN property and you are trespassing.”
Monague emerged from the short meeting saying AFN staff had promised her a meeting with Atleo within two weeks. She said they couldn’t answer any of her questions around whether Atleo had breached his mandate as national chief by supporting the proposed education bill without first seeking support from the general assembly.
“I wanted to hear the national chief’s side on whether or not he feels he breached the national mandate and sections of the (AFN) charter in his endorsement of the (proposed bill),” she said. “And why he felt that he needed to endorse the (bill) without taking it back to the chiefs in assembly for review and analysis.”
Monague said there is unease at the grassroots level across the country about the proposed education bill.
In the Mohawk community of Kahnawake, the Longhouse people, who are part of the traditional Iroquois Confederacy, are also concerned about the implications of the bill.
Kahnawake, which sits near Montreal, has managed to develop a strong education system with an emphasis on the Mohawk language. The Longhouse people worry the bill would put their education system under the authority of the Aboriginal Affairs minister. That’s something the sovereign-minded Mohawks have a tough time swallowing.
“The bill totally controls everything and we just can’t stomach that,” said Joe Deom, who is part of Kahnawake’s 207 Longhouse. “There is no opting out, so what are we going to do if they pass the law? We don’t know yet. We have to deal with it and the other communities across Canada probably have the same feeling about it too.”
Of the five chiefs from Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec who held a press conference in Ottawa Monday demanding the Conservative government withdraw the bill, it was Kahnawake Grand Chief Mike Delisle who outlined the clearest consequences facing Canada if nothing changed.
“The Canadian economy will eventually be the target,” said Delisle, who heads the band council, which is not often supported by the traditional Longhouse people.
Delisle said opposition to the education bill had united Kahnawake, which was one of two Mohawk communities at the centre of the Oka crisis in 1990.
Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Derek Nepinak said the bill carried echoes of a darker education experiment.
“I believe this bill is tarnished by the same thinking that gave way to the residential school system,” said Nepinak, during the press conference.
Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt’s office issued a statement during the chiefs’ press conference and it highlighted the AFN’s support for the bill.
“Our government has made reforming First Nations education a priority. This is the goal that we share with First Nations parents, teachers, students and communities across the country and I am pleased to see that, like us, the (AFN) has placed the needs of children first and confirmed that (the bill) is a constructive and necessary step forward,” said Valcourt’s office.
Atleo has invested the remainder of his political capital on the proposed education bill. He stood next to Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Feb. 7 to announce an agreement between the AFN and Ottawa giving birth to the education bill.
This past Friday the AFN released an analysis concluding that Bill C- 33 heralded a “moment of opportunity” for First Nations education.
“(The bill) is a constructive and necessary step supportive of the goals expressed by First Nations for control, respect for treaty and Aboriginal rights, recognition of language and culture and a clear statutory guarantee for fair funding,” said the analysis.
The bill comes with about $1.9 billion in new funding for education. The largest chunk of the money, $1.252 billion, will be spread out over three years beginning in 2016, after the next federal election. The bill would also raise the two per cent annual cap on education funding to 4.5 per cent a year. It would also allow First Nations to group their schools together under education authorities, enter into agreements with provincial school boards or operate their own schools independently.
Under the bill, all students graduating from First Nation schools would have recognized certificates or diplomas, receive a minimum number of instructional hours and be taught by certified teachers. The bill would also ensure all children have access to elementary and secondary education on reserves.
Schools would also be required to appoint a “school inspector” responsible for ensuring the school is meeting all requirements under the act, including the academic performance of students at the institution. If a school fails to meet standards, it could be put under co-management or under third-party management by the minister.
According to a counter analysis of the bill distributed to several First Nations chiefs, the bill gives the minister of Aboriginal Affairs new powers over First Nation education. The counter analysis found that the bill only gives First Nations the ability to administer these new ministerial powers at the reserve level.
“Bill C-33 would give the minister great powers which he does not have at the present time. The bill could be accurately titled, ‘Increasing ministerial control of First Nation education,'” said the counter analysis.
According to the counter analysis, the minister’s only current control over First Nations education exists through contribution agreements between First Nations and the department.
“These are entered into independently of the Indian Act,” said the counter analysis.
First Nations with self-government agreements are outside of this framework and would not be impacted by the bill.