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First Nations education legislation threatens BC education agreement: UBCIC

The federal government's proposed First Nations Education Act will override a tripartite education agreement signed between the First Nations Education Steering Committee (FNESC) and the federal and B.C. governments last year, says Grand Chief Stewart Philip of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs (UBCIC).

Last week Philip attended the Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development (AANDC) Session on Canada's Proposed National First Nations Education Act in Vancouver. In a press release issued this morning, Stewart said the proposed legislation would overrule the tripartite agreement signed in January 2012.

"This short shrift process threatens existing education jurisdiction agreements and is a continuation of the Harper Government's attack on our collective and inherent Title, Rights and Treaty Rights,”" reads his statement.

B.C. is the only province that has signed a tripartite First Nations education agreement between the provincial and federal governments and local First Nations. The agreement promises a boost in annual federal education funding by $15 million for reserve schools, bringing them to roughly the same funding level as public schools in the province.

The provincial side of the agreement includes working with FNESC to create a seamless transition for students moving between reserve and public schools, as well as provincial graduation certificates for students who graduate high school on reserve.

But all that could be tossed by the wayside if federal legislation is passed.

"It's an agreement, so legislation could trump (it), the agreement is five years. So we're into year one. We see long-term the legislation can displace the work that’s been done in B.C.," said Debbie Jeffrey, FNESC’s executive director.

As a signatory to the tripartite agreement, Jeffrey says the province has a role to play in defending it.

The Ministry of Education declined to comment on the issue, saying until the federal legislation has been tabled it is difficult to respond.

The Tyee also contacted the three leading opposition parties in the upcoming provincial election for their thoughts on the government's role in protecting the tripartite agreement.

Scott Fraser, New Democratic Party critic for Aboriginal Relations said he hasn't read the legislation but says the anger from First Nations across the country is indicative that the federal government is not approaching the issue in the right way.

"In this tripartite agreement, we're seeing flaws in how legislation is being delivered in a pretty autocratic way from Ottawa. This doesn't help anyone, and it's causing friction as opposed to finding solutions" he said.

"I think the province should take a role to make sure that doesn't happen."

Green Party Leader Jane Sterk said she didn't know enough about the tripartite agreement to comment directly. But she did say if the Green Party formed government they would create a model relationship with First Nations for the federal government to follow.

"In some ways that different relationship was started under the Premier Campbell Liberal government,”" she told The Tyee.

"We would like to build on that, that relationship that was started under Campbell and been allowed to become indifferent and not exercised under Premier Clark.

"As a provincial government we could start a conversation with the federal government on starting a new relationship and new strategy for its relationship with First Nations."

In an email to The Tyee, a BC Conservative spokesperson declined comment "as it is a federal issue."

In a previous Tyee article written when the agreement was signed last year, Jeffrey said the federal government promised FNESC they would not impose federal First Nations education legislation.

“There's a big piece on the part of the federal government to consult with us on a number of issues in terms of changes to education policy guidelines and legislation, and also they've committed to develop B.C. specific education policy and guidelines required to implement the agreement," she told The Tyee.

The proposed legislation has been rejected by the Assembly of First Nations, and AANDC consultation sessions with First Nations across the country have been tense, marked by protests and in some cases violence.

The Tyee contacted AANDC for comment but did not hear back by press time.

Katie Hyslop reports on education and youth issues for The Tyee Solutions Society. Follow her on Twitter.

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