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MONTREAL - Aboriginal leaders are pointing to past abuses as evidence that the federal government should let their communities craft their own education policies.
When news broke that more than 1,300 aboriginal people, mostly children, were used as subjects of nutritional experiments initiated by the Canadian government in the 1940s and '50s, it struck a chord with aboriginal leaders that was all-too-contemporary.
A statement from the Assembly of First Nations said such horrors would never have happened if aboriginal people were in control of their own lives and communities.
News of the old abuses resurfaced as the national organization was meeting this week in Whitehorse, where members were discussing education reform.
Some lamented that federal policy-makers haven't learned key lessons of the past, as they prepare to present the First Nation Education Act to Parliament this fall.
"The pattern in which the federal government has approached this (legislation) hasn't broken the pattern we are looking to break," Assembly of First Nations Chief Shawn Atleo said in an interview.
Participants at the Whitehorse meeting issued a statement asking Canada to work with First Nations as partners on a path to progress.
Since 2012, the federal government has been crafting legislation that it says does exactly that. It says it has consulted with aboriginal communities at every step in the process, met with 600 people and received written input from almost 600 more.
The legislation would create a framework allowing First Nations to establish their own education systems.
The government sent a letter to First Nations chiefs earlier this month outlining a "blueprint" of its planned legislation, which is now available online, and has requested feedback on progress made to date.
That draft version of the bill proposes standards for "school-success plans" for each First Nation school; suggests following up with annual reports; and promises governance "options" for communities in accordance with treaty rights.
But the AFN unanimously passed a motion this week opposing the government blueprint, citing seven key problems with it.
That motion pointed to Prime Minister Stephen Harper's 2008 Residential Schools apology and cited his statement that "this policy of assimilation is wrong, has caused great harm, and has no place in our country."
The motion said the impending legislation "denies" the primary importance of First Nations languages and cultures.
It also cited a failure to: affirm First Nation control over First Nation Education; apply the successful lessons learned by First Nations; and address historic funding shortfalls.
Since 1996, the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development has seen its education funds capped at a two per cent increase per year.
Meanwhile, the aboriginal population is growing at a much faster rate. It grew just over 20 per cent from 2006 to 2011, in contrast to the rest of the population which grew about five per cent.
The AFN pegs the funding shortfall at $3 billion since 1996.
Atleo says there are still problems that date back to the painful residential-school era.
"I can make the link to that (malnourishment) study, because it was clear back in the '40s that the problem was that there wasn't adequate funding," he said.
"(The government) knew it beforehand, they knew it after, and there are studies today that demonstrate there are unfair funding levels for First Nations learners."
Provincial bodies have also taken steps to fight the legislation.
In Quebec, First Nations communities commissioned a firm to produce a legal opinion on whether the government's consultation process respected its constitutional obligations.
Hutchins Legal Inc. determined that — as of March 15 — the government's consultation process had fallen short of fulfilling its constitutional duties.
First Nations in Saskatchewan took a more pre-emptive approach.
Vice-Chief Bobby Cameron of the Saskatchewan Federation of Indian Nations recently asked all the association's member-nations to develop and implement their own education acts before the federal government beat them to it.
When asked about concerns regarding the process, the federal government said in an email that the consultation was "ongoing."
When Nippissing Univeristy President Michael DeGagne spoke to the Whitehorse assembly, he described misunderstandings between non-native and native leaders.
"Aboriginal people are not saying, 'Give us control of our education,' because they want control," he said in an interview later.
"They are asking for control so they can have better outcomes."
DeGagne stressed repeatedly that doing so did not mean lowering standards, something he said is feared by non-native policy-makers.
"It just means educating in a different way," he said in the interview. "The way aboriginal people look at the world is not second-rate, and we have to give ourselves credit for that."
He said consultation really needs to come from openness from both parties.
"We have to consult from a place that is almost a blank piece of paper," he said.
"It's different from saying, 'Look, this is my framework I'd appreciate if you'd sign it.'"
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