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Martin critical of Harper Conservatives' approach to First Nations

VANCOUVER - Former Liberal prime minister Paul Martin has joined those who have criticized the Harper government's controversial reforms to First Nations education.

The education of First Nations children, particularly those entering Grade 1, is one of the most important issues facing Canada, Martin said Saturday.

"For the federal government to basically be saying 'my way or the highway' towards that is just wrong," said Martin, who was in Vancouver to accept an award from the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

Martin also accused the governing Conservatives of neglecting aboriginal schooling, which he said is bad for business and morally unacceptable.

"The federal government underfunds their education and underfunds their healthcare and that is morally wrong — it's also economically dumb," he said.

"How can you underfund the education of the youngest and the fastest growing segment of your population?"

Martin said that the Kelowna Accord would have addressed this problem.

As prime minister, Martin was a driving force behind the agreement, a $5 billion promise to fund among other things First Nations education and social programs over 10 years.

But it never materialized after his government was toppled by the Conservatives in 2006.

The current government's bill has divided aboriginal leaders, with many saying it gives Ottawa too much control over their children's education.

Chiefs from across Canada voted to reject Bill C-33, dubbed the First Nations Control Of First Nations Education Act.

Aboriginal leaders also called on the government to provide $1.9 billion tied to the bill immediately, with a 4.5 per cent escalator until a new deal on education is reached.

Chiefs demanded a new agreement with First Nations that provides payments to aboriginal communities.

However Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt is resisting calls to go back to the drawing board, citing the time and effort that have been put into the current bill.

He said the proposed legislation meets the five conditions outlined by the Assembly of First Nations during a meeting in December and received the support of the assembly.

The legislation remains on hold as the government considers its options.

Martin was in Vancouver to receive an award from the Canadian Taxpayers Federation recognizing his work in putting Canada's financial house in order as finance minister in the government of Jean Chretien.

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