“Cautious optimism” greets federal announcement

Tyler Clarke
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Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde. 

What Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in Alberta on Friday sounded good in theory, but Chief Perry Bellegarde is maintaining a “cautious optimism.”


In Alberta for Friday’s First Nations education announcement, the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations chief said that increased federal funding is good news, but there are a lot of “ifs.”

“It could be a positive thing if it means closing the teacher-salary gap on reserve, because there’s a huge gap between teacher salaries on reserve and off reserve,” he said. “If this is a way of dealing with that, it could be a positive thing.”

Another positive would be if the promised increase in funding closed the tuition gap between on-reserve and off-reserve students. Reservations receive $6,500 of funding per student, while off-reserve students in the provincial school system receive $10,500.  

Harper’s announcement might also prove positive if the added financial investment meets the capital needs that on-reserve schools face.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper promised $1.9 billion in funding over a few years for aboriginal education, including investment in language and cultural instruction and infrastructure. A provision was also made for a 4.5 per cent annual increase.

“The devil’s in the details,” Bellegarde said. “How is this accessed, how is it rolled out, what are the program requirements?

“It has to be founded on … First Nations control of First Nations education, and it has to also be founded on the … inherent (treaty) rights we have as First Nations people, that any legislation can’t deviate from those two principals.”

Late last year, the Prince Albert Grand Council’s 12 bands joined all 74 member bands within the FSIN in rejecting the federal government’s proposed First Nations Education Act, citing it as government control over what treaties dictated must be First Nations responsibility.

It has to be founded on … First Nations control of First Nations education, and it has to also be founded on the … inherent (treaty) rights we have as First Nations people -- that any legislation can’t deviate from those two principles. Perry Bellegarde

In response, all member bands created their own individually tailored education acts, using the FSN education act template that was created in 1984.

On Friday, Harper said that in addition to a funding increase, any First Nations Education Act will be co-developed with First Nations people.

With plenty of questions that still need answering, Bellegarde said that it will come down to what First Nations people want.

“Do First Nations want to participate, and … they probably will, only if they will drive the process,” he concluded. “They will be in control of dialogue and whatever policy or legislation is put forward.”

FSIN Vice Chief Bobby Cameron is involved in a national chiefs’ committee that will help steer the future of whatever First Nations educational policies come forward.

His role is “to make sure that our voices are heard, that our positions are strong, and they influence what can happen on the next steps,” Bellegarde summarized.

“Our children are too important to be put to the side anymore … The fastest growing segment of Canada’s population is First Nations youth, so a key focus, a key strategy is investment in education and training.

“Cautious optimism going forward.” 

Organizations: First Nations, Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, Prince Albert Grand Council

Geographic location: Alberta, Canada

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