Duncan lukewarm on national panel's call for immediate fixes to First Nation education

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The Harper government doesn’t appear prepared to move immediately on recommendations issued Wednesday morning by a national First Nation education panel created by Ottawa and the Assembly of First Nation to find fixes for the crumbling school system on reserves.

The National Panel on First Nation Elementary and Secondary Education called for immediate funding increases for First Nation education to coincide with the beginning of the 2012-2013 school year.

The $3.1 million panel, created last June, also recommended the creation of a First Nation education ministry in conjunction with new education legislation, to be introduced within the next 18 months, and the creation of regional education boards.

Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan, however, called the timelines issued by the panel’s report “aspirational” and wouldn’t say whether the federal government would be injecting new funds toward First Nation K to 12 education in the coming budget.

“We are very much concentrated on jobs and the economy. The timelines in the report are indeed very tight,” Duncan told reporters on Parliament Hill. “Those timelines are aspirational. They are based on what they would like to see happen…We will do what we can.”

Assembly of First Nations, National Chief Shawn Atleo, however, released a statement highlighting the tight timelines as the right response to the urgent need for change.

“I thank the members of the panel for their effort and acknowledge the tight timeframe for this work to be completed,” said Atleo. “I am encouraged that this report acknowledges the urgency as well as the need to build First Nation education systems that respect First Nation rights and responsibilities.”

The panel’s report, titled Nurturing the Learning Spirit of First Nation Students, is the result of months-long consultations across the country.

The report calls on the federal government to increase funding for First Nations schools equal to the percentage increases for schools in their respective provinces. The report also recommends teachers working in First Nation schools receive pay equal to what their counterparts earn in provincial schools.

Duncan, however, said money wasn’t the only thing the education system needed.

“I am not going to speculate on the budget,” said Duncan. “Money can’t do everything, what we need is to change structures.”

The structural changes called for by the panel’s report will cost money.

In addition to calling for an immediate increase to education funding, the panel recommended the creation of a First Nation Education Commission to act as a ministry of education for reserve schools. The panel also recommended the creation of regional First Nation education organizations which would act like school boards.

Increased funding was also top of mind for many of the people the panel met on their consultations across the country.

“It was the single most frequently mentioned issue as we talked to people across the country,” said panel chair Scott Haldane, president of YMCA Canada. “We believe in order to close this gap there is going to need to be more money invested than the average investment in the provinces.”

The NDP called on the Harper government to immediately begin implementing the panel’s recommendations.

“The fact is the gap between delivery of education of First Nations and non-First Nations students has widened,” said NDP Aboriginal affairs critic Linda Duncan. “First Nations students should not be forced to wait any longer for their right to education to be honoured.”

The Liberals issued the same call.

“Any reform to First Nations education must put the child first and funding must be based on real, community needs,” said Liberal Aboriginal affairs critic Carolyn Bennett. “The Harper government must implement the national panel’s urgent fiscal recommendations in the upcoming budget.”

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