The news that 3,000 young Aboriginal people died while in the care of residential schools should not come as a shock.

Nor should the fact that some of those deaths occurred as recently as the 1970s.

Acting Aboriginal Affairs Minister James Moore has described the deaths (which were almost certainly well in excess of the currently verified number of 3,000) as a “horrific circumstance.”

They were horrific, indeed — but hardly a “circumstance.” The deaths were an almost inevitable consequence of the residential school system. In much the same way, RCMP abuse of Aboriginal women and girls in Northern British Columbia is hardly a random circumstance.

In both cases, it is what happens when the majority society treats a people as colonized subjects.

The residential schools were open and honest about their purpose — to erase the “Indian” identity of their charges.

In our supposedly enlightened time, the RCMP is officially responsible for protecting communities of all kinds, including Aboriginal communities. But the evidence of RCMP officers’ behaviour toward Aboriginal women shows that, in northern B.C. at any rate, the Mounties act more like a foreign army of occupation than citizens’ protectors.

Some common ground on education?

When Moore — or whoever takes over Aboriginal Affairs long term — gets down to business, he or she will find First Nations education high on the agenda.

The Harper government is none too sympathetic to First Nations demands for resource revenue sharing, and provincial premiers, such as Saskatchewan’s Brad Wall have already vetoed the idea.

And the federal Conservatives are much more likely to focus on First Nations so-called “accountability” than on effective self-government or addressing the dysfunctional funding system described by multiple Auditor General Reports.

In other words, there is a big gulf between what a good many First Nations people think is important and Conservative government priorities.

Where the two sides might, just might, find some common ground is on education.

Doing something to improve education outcomes for Aboriginal youth can find a plausible place in the Conservative worldview.

The government is well aware of the growing demographic space a burgeoning Aboriginal population will occupy in some provinces, notably Saskatchewan.

It is equally aware of the great economic opportunity cost of failing to adequately train and educate that increasingly important demographic.

In a 2010 report for the Ottawa-based Centre for the Study of Living Standards, Andrew Sharpe and Jean-François Arsenault wrote:

“Improving the social and economic well-being of the Aboriginal population is not only a moral imperative; it is a sound investment that will pay substantial dividends in the coming decades. In particular, Canada’s Aboriginal population could play a key role in mitigating the looming long-term labour shortage caused by Canada’s aging population and low birth rate. We estimate that complete closure of both the education and the labour market outcomes gaps by 2026 would lead to cumulative benefits of $400.5 billion (2006 dollars) in additional output and $115 billion in avoided government expenditures over the 2001-2026 period.”

Reforms promised almost a year and a half ago

Focusing on education for First Nations fits with a Conservative ideology that measures almost all government actions in terms of economic cost or benefit and that emphasizes what it defines as “self-reliance” over “dependency.”

Given all that, this year past — 2012 — was supposed to be the year for big progress on First Nations’ education.

The Deputy Minister of Aboriginal Affairs thought he was safe promising as much when he appeared before the Commons Public Accounts Committee in the fall of 2011.

That appearance was in response to the previous spring’s damning Auditor General’s (AG’s) Report.

The Spring AG Report was scathing in its denunciation of the unworkable “contribution agreement” system for financing almost all services on First Nations reserves, and it argued forcefully that most services were significantly underfunded according to general Canadian standards.

The Deputy Minister said it would take time for the government to address all the issues the AG raised, but promised that education would be a very high priority.

A strong report that challenges both government and First Nations leaders

More than a year ago, the joint Government-Assembly of First Nations National Panel on First Nations’ Education gave its report to the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and National Chief. 

That report contained recommendations that would not doubt be hard to swallow both for the government and for at least some First Nations leaders.

For the government, the report wants to take education out of the hands of the Aboriginal Affairs Ministry and put it under the control of a First Nations Education Commission, run by the First Nations people themselves.

That would mean recognition of a level of self-government that might make any federal and many provincial governments nervous. It could set a “dangerous” precedent. What would its implications be for other areas of governance, such as minerals, forests and oil and gas?

The report also recommends significant increases in funding for First Nations schools, in part to make up for the historic levels of chronic underfunding. That again, for a government focused like a laser beam on austerity, would be a hard sell.

For First Nations, the report states bluntly that it would be necessary to amalgamate any number of small, individual band-run schools into larger regional entities to achieve economies of scale. That is, understandably, an idea some local band councils and chiefs might resist.

Crocodile tears?

And so, it is not surprising that, after initially accepting the recommendations of the Report, National Chief Shawn Atleo backed away somewhat. Ironically, key players in the federal government likely breathed a huge sigh of relief when that happened.

Federal officials often cry that a big barrier to achieving progress on First Nations matters is the near impossibility of gaining buy-in on anything from all Aboriginal leaders.

But those officials are probably shedding crocodile tears.

The absence of Aboriginal unanimity is a great excuse for maintaining the status quo.

Aboriginal support for a great many of the natural resources and environmental provisions of the Conservative government’s two budget implementation bills was very limited — Patrick Brazeau being a lonely exception — but the government forged ahead nonetheless.

When measures are close to the heart of the Harper government it does not need unanimity — or even consensus — to forge ahead.

If nothing has yet happened on First Nations education almost a year and half since the Deputy Minister promised action, and more than a year after the National Panel Report, it is not because the First Nations people can’t get their act together.

It is because the government has only been, at best, vaguely interested.

Is there any chance new leadership at Aboriginal Affairs could make any difference?

Whatever the new Minister does, his or her first task should be to carefully read the Auditor General’s report of Spring 2011 and the National Panel Report of last February. That would be a start, anyway.

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...