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Minister offers Assembly of First Nations olive branch on education bill

Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt has asked First Nations communities for suggestions on how to improve a draft government bill on aboriginal education, and vowed to work together with communities to get the legislation right, he said in a letter to the Assembly of First Nations Friday.

The minister reiterated his promise of new funding for First Nations schools under new legislation and reassured that aboriginal bands already in existing self government agreements that cover education would not be forced under the new model.

The letter, dated Friday and addressed to AFN National Chief Shawn Atleo, comes one day after an AFN annual assembly that saw the group pass a resolution rejecting the bill in its current form -- but also promising to work with the government on a different model.

It also comes in direct response to a November letter Atleo wrote to Valcourt outlining five demands on the bill: First Nations control over education; stable funding guarantees; the protection of language and culture; freedom from Ottawa's oversight bureaucracy; and a commitment to develop a new school system together.

Valcourt's reply, which was cordially worded, promised that the bill will strengthen First Nations control over education and will provide "sustainable, stable and predictable funding" -- which will include transition funding.

"I want to reaffirm my strong commitment, on behalf of the Government of Canada, to working with you and other First Nations leaders," Valcourt said. "While we may not always see eye-to-eye on all issues, I know we can stand together in the efforts to create a better system for First Nation students."

On language and culture, Valcourt asked communities to suggest how best be integrate the two into a school curriculum.

First Nations will likely see the biggest victory in Valcourt's letter in his comments on funding, especially where he acknowledges the current funding formula -- designed in 1988 -- is out of date.

"It has been 25 years since it has been updated," the minister said, indicating he is open to significant reform of the formula, which has been subject to a two per cent cap since 1996. The minster has recently done an about face on the education bill.

Once heralded as a groundbreaking piece of legislation that was meant to come online in the fall of 2014, it has now, in the government's own language, become a slow work in progress.

"The consultation process is not finished, and there is no deadline," Valcourt said, referring to the 75-day deadline he imposed on the draft bill's consultation period in October.

"We are only on the first draft of a bill."

Atleo said it was "important" for Valcourt to respond to concerns from First Nations.

"The Minister has stated that there is an opportunity for dialogue on terms set by the Chiefs," Atleo said in a statement. "We will make efforts to ensure First Nations are aware of the Minister's response."

"We will be carefully reviewing the Minister's letter and setting out next steps through dialogue with all First Nations."

Olesia Polkhii reports for iPolitics, where this article first appeared.

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