Events this fall have highlighted the ongoing struggle of First Nations to exercise greater control over resources and modernize relationships with governments. At the federal level, changes have occurred that reflect this move to improved self-governance, and will be discussed further at a meeting hosted by the prime minister in January. CGE contributor Vic Pakalnis interviewed Shawn A-in-chut Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations about the changes.
Is there a need for a new governance model for First Nations?
Right now, the bureaucracy and its policies are failing miserably. We need new structures that affirm the relationship and uphold the responsibility. We envision a time in the near future when First Nation governments – at their choice and based on their direction – will operate outside the narrow confines of the Indian Act. This has to be done in a way that recognizes First Nation jurisdiction and our responsibilities as governments and nations.
We’ve seen that real progress is achieved through First Nations building our governance systems, law-making, administrative capacities and re-building and re-claiming our jurisdiction and our responsibilities. Most important, we see this where First Nations are affirming their rights through Treaty. Advancing the First Nation-Crown relationship means progress through steps like the First Nation-Crown Gathering, First Ministers Meetings with First Nations and a potential First Nation-Crown agreement that advances and affirms our rights.
How should the education system for First Nations people be improved?
The existing framework for First Nations education is severely flawed. The education provisions of the Indian Act are essentially the same provisions that existed in 1951 when residential schools were the primary mechanism for education of First Nations people. With no recognition of First Nation rights or responsibility and no commitment to stability and resourcing, the Indian Act fails as a vehicle to support education. We want to re-create a learning environment in our communities and link with organizations and the public and private sectors to invest in First Nations schools and in our kids.
It is time to fulfill the vision articulated in the 1972 policy paper “Indian Control of Indian Education” and work with First Nations in the development of a framework to enable First Nations education systems to emerge. The current approach of funding First Nations schools through an outdated funding formula, combined with time-limited proposal-based programs, is not acceptable. The two percent cap on annual expenditure increases since 1996 has meant that classroom funding in First Nations education has not kept up with inflation or population growth. We estimate that a minimum increase of 6.3 percent was required over this time period simply to keep up.
Comparability with funding for provincial schools and systems is a basic benchmark. More specifically, First Nations require funding which will cover the real costs of the programs and services that are comparable to what students in provincial systems receive. In remote areas and small schools, this may require additional funding support. First Nations education systems must be empowered to provide the necessary supports to First Nations schools, and share expertise with provincial systems. Who better than First Nations to develop culturally appropriate curriculum and provide culturally-based teacher education?
The federal government is currently working with us on the National Panel on K-12 Education, which is an important effort to engage First Nations. The Panel will be reporting its findings soon. It will be important that we use this information to take deliberate steps forward. Post-secondary funding is an absolute necessity to ensure that our high school graduates have the promise of higher education. Our research shows that First Nations need an additional 65,000 university graduates to achieve parity with the rest of Canada.
At the International Summit of Indigenous People on Mining and Energy in July, you spoke of increased First Nations participation and benefit in these two key sectors. How do you see this being implemented?
The AFN has been leading efforts to ensure industry and governments are aware of and guided by the principles of free, prior and informed consent for any projects in First Nations territory. I recently joined a small group of First Nation leaders in a trade mission to China. Our delegation took part in this trade mission in an effort to build relationships that will lead to economic partnerships for First Nations in Canada. We met with Chinese government officials and many Chinese business leaders. The intention was to remind them that First Nations have title and rights that pertain to any development incurring on our traditional territories. First Nations are open to economic development but it must be respectful of our rights and our land and territories.
We are currently working on the creation of a Virtual Institute of First Nation Energy and Mining. This will enable First Nations to share our knowledge and expertise, and promote better ways of working together towards mutual prosperity. In the meantime, the AFN continues to advocate for the full implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the principle of free, prior and informed consent, which means consulting and accommodating First Nations prior to development.
What advice would you give to Prime Minister Harper and the provincial premiers on dealing with First Nations issues?
While I am not in the business of giving advice, I do feel that First Nations people have suffered enough and the time has come to re-set the relationship between the government and First Nations. We are looking forward to coming together as nations and continuing our dialogue with government during the First Nations-Crown Gathering this coming winter.
The intent of this gathering is to rebuild the nation-to-nation relationship between First Nations and the Crown, as we did in the original relationships, to renew relationships and to set the course for the future based on our Treaties, our rights and our jurisdiction. First Nation representatives, the Prime Minister and key government officials will meet with a focused agenda to set out a real plan for fundamental change and progress.
This is something we have been calling for and something the Prime Minister committed to, most recently in December 2010. Canada’s endorsement of the UN Declaration makes this a necessary and important priority. Provincial and territorial leaders support this gathering and we are meeting with them to discuss this and other priorities. This joint effort is based on strengthening the relationship between First Nations and the Government of Canada on some key priority issues to produce real results that strengthen First Nations people, communities and governments.