CHURCHILL, Man. – Canada’s premiers and native leaders want the federal government to join them in talks to improve education for aboriginal people as one way to keep their youth out of jail.
Shawn Atleo, chief of the Assembly of First Nations, says improving learning for natives will help lift them out of poverty.
“To move on education is a national priority. It’s seen as incredibly urgent. We can’t allow for any time to be wasted,” Atleo said after the leaders met Wednesday in Churchill, Man.
“We’ve talked about the economic benefits as well to this country. Our studies show that by 2020, if we close the education and employment gap, it would result in a $71-billion contribution to Canada’s GDP.
Atleo said that at the very minimum aboriginal youth should get the same access to learning that others have in the provinces and territories.
“That is not currently existing right now.”
He noted that many First Nations communities don’t even have schools and suggested there’s an immediate need for at least 60 of them across the country. He also predicted there could be trouble if an investment isn’t made in education.
“If we open the door to a school, we close the door to a jail cell,” said Atleo. “We need to make those direct correlations. That’s what I heard from other leaders here, that we’re going to be running into problems, and we have those problems already, and they can only increase.”
Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger, who spoke on behalf of all the premiers, said he’ll send Prime Minister Stephen Harper a letter asking Harper to convene a first meeting.
“We think this would be a significant way for us to discuss how we can move forward together on ensuring that the young demographic in the First Nations, Metis and Inuit community has all the opportunities they need to get a first quality education,” he said.
Any partnership on aboriginal education must include the federal government, Atleo emphasized.
“Having said that, what I heard from the premiers is that there’s no reason why we can’t get on with this work right now, and we’re prepared to do that.”
The premiers left Churchill on Wednesday afternoon after getting drenched on a whale-watching expedition on Hudson Bay. They were to meet again Thursday and Friday in Winnipeg for their annual conference. Topics are to include how to keep the tentative economic recovery on track while dealing with big deficits most jurisdictions racked up during the slump.