On Wednesday March 17 Calvin Helin joined host Anna Maria Tremonti on CBC radio’s The Current to talk about Free to Learn. You can listen to the clip here. Below is the second part of the transcript from that interview, with Shawn Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations:
ANNA MARIA TREMONTI: Shawn Atleo is the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations. It has said that it does not like this idea. Shawn Atleo is in Ottawa. Good morning.
SHAWN ATLEO (National Chief, Assembly of First Nations): Good morning.
TREMONTI: Why don’t you like this idea?
ATLEO: Well, actually what I really like is the, is the attention that it continues to bring to the need for post-secondary education success. And as Calvin points out, the fact that we have a greying mainstream population and over 50 percent of the First Nations population are under the age of 25, and those are really important factors.
TREMONTI: So, why don’t you like it?
ATLEO: Well, I didn’t say that I didn’t like it. I think that there are challenges with the, the whole concept or the whole idea of how post-secondary has been managed. And I think that that’s where there’s a shared, that’s where there’s a shared notion. Since 2004 the auditor general said in a report that there is no higher priority than aboriginal post-secondary education. But in fact, the points that were made in that report was that the administration that needs to be improved is with Indian and Northern Affairs Canada. And so, if there are problems with how this program is administered in Ottawa, certainly there’s going to be challenges with how it’s administered overall. It has been very, very successful as a program overall.
TREMONTI: But he just pointed out that there are audits that show that there’s patronage involved in who gets the money. What’s wrong with actually, he’s suggesting something that would empower individual students. They can look at money in a fund that they would be able to use for their education and he says it would be an incentive because they know that they would be able to use it. What about this idea of bypassing the band councils?
ATLEO: Well, what we’ve said to the federal government and what they’ve said in the throne speech and the budget speech is that they’re prepared to work hand-in-hand with First Nations to reform a program that certainly has overall, people would suggest and agree, many, many flaws. In the early sixties or mid-sixties we only had two or three graduates and we’ve now got over, I think, 100,000 graduates in post-secondary education. But right now we’ve got at least 10,000 students, post-secondary possible students whose dreams have been delayed or denied. And of course…
TREMONTI: Well, so can you speak to that specific question. You keep talking about the federal government. He’s suggesting that it goes right to the students as part of the structural change. Do you have a problem with that?
ATLEO: Well, you know, I’m challenged with the notion that, you know, as the Prime Minister said in 2008, the former education system under the residential schools sought to pull children from families. It was unilaterally delivered, designed and executed and caused tremendous damage. And so, the notion that’s being forwarded now is that we design an approach that works for us collectively together. And it could include some sort of proposals, the likes of which are being considered in this particular report. But what’s important to go back to is the original notion of, of the treaty-making in this country, which still goes on, which says that we should work towards bringing our peoples much more closely together. And so, this report doesn’t speak to how we’re going to achieve the goals that we’ve set out of 65,000 new graduates within the next five years, which would close the achievement gap with the rest of Canada and the need for 60 new schools in communities altogether.
TREMONTI: Okay. Okay, but you’re still not answering my question. The idea of giving individual funding to individual students, are you opposed to that? You seem to keep skirting around that point.
ATLEO: Well, actually I just answered your question because I said…
TREMONTI: Well, he’s suggesting that it goes to a completely different structure, where you create a system for an individual aboriginal student.
ATLEO: What he called it was a proposal. And what I’ve said is that, you know, it’s one proposal of a good number that should be considered when First Nations governments and when the federal government are jointly designing an approach that will work for everybody, then absolutely, you know, everything should be looked at. But the point here being is that it shouldn’t be about what he said and she said. That’s been our past and it’s been full of conflict and finger-pointing about who’s responsible, who’s to blame for what’s not working for students. And we’ve got to bring our focus back, rightfully so, to the students and design together an approach that’s going to ensure their success.
TREMONTI: Well, his point is that right now there’s no transparency, nobody knows where the money goes.
ATLEO: Well, I saw that in the report in a cursory manner. And I think, I think it’s important to note that there wasn’t anything to substantiate that, that point. I work directly with First Nations governments right across this country and transparency and accountability and the quality of administration continues to improve and in fact I would suggest that, that by and large the vast majority are very accountable in the management of their programs. The problem does not stem from there alone. The issue is is how the programs are managed. Indian Affairs will, will agree that, you know, they shouldn’t necessarily be the ones who are involved in managing of education programs. And that’s why we need to take them up on their offer to strengthen and reform education, which are their words in their throne speech, and to do it hand-in-hand. And we should absolutely be looking at all and every way that we can reform and strengthen the system to improve education success and to achieve those objectives that would close the achievement gap with the rest of Canada, and while we’re doing that, strengthen communities so they can create sustainable economies in the 633 communities across this country. By building strong communities it’ll mean a strong Canada.
TREMONTI: You have a master’s degree in education. Am I right?
ATLEO: That’s right.
TREMONTI: What made the difference for you?
ATLEO: Well, focus on education in our, in our family and in our community and the support of the post-secondary education program, direct support for me. And so, I can personally attest to its success and saw it being managed as a very fair program for the people where I come from on the west coast of British Columbia. And that’s the point that I’m trying to make here. I don’t think it’s, I don’t think it’s, we can just accept carte blanche that there is patronage or that there’s going to be widespread problems. I mean, we say that about every level of government. What’s important is to build in, in a reformed (inaudible) system to reduce or eliminate the potential for those kinds of abuses, which I agree shouldn’t be there.
ATLEO: And if they’re happening, then you know, let’s address them through strengthening and reforming the system.
TREMONTI: Shawn Atleo, thanks for your thoughts.
ATLEO: Thank you very much.
TREMONTI: That is Shawn Atleo, the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations. He was in Ottawa.