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OPINION: Mark Strahl and a 'focus on the possible'
When I was appointed Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development last September, I received a number of kind notes and letters congratulating me on my appointment. One note that I won’t soon forget said “Aboriginal Affairs is a tough portfolio, but your Dad always used to say ‘focus on the possible.’ Good luck!”
It was, as it often is from that source, very good advice.
When Canadians think of the relationship between the federal government and aboriginal peoples in Canada, it’s easy to focus on the challenges. But our government has made significant efforts over the last number of years to improve that relationship, starting with the Prime Minister’s historic apology on residential schools in 2008. Recently we’ve taken another significant step toward reconciliation.
By focusing on the possible, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo have achieved an historic milestone, and an unprecedented opportunity to improve the health and well-being of current and future generations of First Nations children.
In February, I was honoured to attend the ceremony on the Blood Reserve in Alberta announcing that Canada and the Assembly of First Nations had agreed on a path forward to improve First Nations education on reserve. I was also in the House of Commons on April 10 to witness the introduction of the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act.
First and foremost, this bill would ensure that control rests with First Nations for the administration of their own education system on reserve. With that control comes accountability and responsibility- that statutory funds will go directly to schools and students, that teachers will be certified to provincial standards and that students will be able to graduate with a recognized diploma. The bill will also remove those sections of the Indian Act that allowed for the creation of residential schools, once and for all.
Right now, First Nations students being educated on reserve across the country are graduating at a rate of only 38 per cent, around 50 per centage points lower than the national average. In remote and northern regions, the rate is even lower. Statistics show that students without a recognized high school diploma will earn less, will have fewer job prospects and will have greater difficulty acquiring the skills necessary to be employable in today’s job market.
There are great examples of First Nations education systems having great success—the Mi’kmaq in Nova Scotia are graduating over 85 per cent of their students, which is a better rate that the rest of the province—but this sort of success needs to become the norm as opposed to the exception.
As the fastest growing population in Canada, First Nations youth have opportunities like never before to be full partners in Canada’s economy. When outcomes for First Nations kids are improved, their communities benefit, indeed so does their country.
I am hopeful that Canadians will be able look back on that ceremony on the Blood Reserve and the introduction of the bill in the House of Commons as a turning point for First Nations education, Canada-First Nations relations and opportunity for First Nations children. The possibilities are very promising, and that’s truly worth focusing on.
Mark Strahl, MP