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GATINEAU, QUE. — The Globe and Mail
Published Wednesday, Dec. 11 2013, 6:00 AM EST
Last updated Wednesday, Dec. 11 2013, 6:08 AM EST
As native leaders press the federal government to put as much money, per capita, into First Nations education as the provinces pay to educate other children, one of Canada’s top economists says even equal funding would sell native pupils short.
Don Drummond, the former chief economist at Toronto-Dominion Bank who is now a scholar at Queen’s University in Kingston, will tell chiefs on Wednesday that reserve schools likely need 20 per cent more money than they are currently getting from Ottawa to deliver the quality of education that is provided to the rest of Canadian children.
The federal Aboriginal Affairs department says it currently spends $1.55-billion annually on First Nations education. And, as the government tries to persuade native leaders to endorse a proposed act that would reform the delivery of native education, Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt says there will be more funding for K-12 education after the act is passed.
The chiefs, on the other hand, insist that assurances of increased long-term funding must be provided before any education legislation will get their approval. For years they have argued that a cap on core funding for First Nations education, which restricts federal increases to 2 per cent annually, has left their schools falling further and further behind the rest of Canada.
But Mr. Drummond said in an interview Tuesday, he plans to tell native leaders: “Be careful what you ask for. Because you’re asking for comparability on the input [money] which won’t necessarily give you comparability on the outcome or the objective [educational success]. And that’s what we should be focusing on.”
There is widespread agreement that the current system is failing. In 2011, the high school graduation rate for people living on reserves was just 35.5, compared to 78 per cent for the population as a whole.
“You would think, without doing very much mathematical computation at all, that (First Nations schools) would require higher than provincial funding because you have much more challenging circumstances on most reserves,” he said.
The Assembly of First Nations has said the federal government spends a little over $7,000 per First Nations student – far short of the more than $10,000 that the average province spends per capita to educate children in their schools.
The federal government disputes those figures and says it pays more than $14,000 for every First Nations child in school, which is well above the national average. Mr. Drummond, who was once a senior official in the federal Finance Department, was perplexed by the discrepancy and spent three months trying to figure out where the truth lies. In a paper he will release Wednesday at a chiefs’ assembly in Gatineau that was obtained by The Globe, he admits it was an impossible task. There are at least a dozen reasons why the numbers are so dramatically different, said Mr. Drummond, but two stand out.
First, while the core money for schools has been capped, the government has been chipping in various amounts of transitional funding for specific projects, some of it long term, most of it not. The Department of Aboriginal Affairs counts all of those expenditures and its own administrative costs into its total, while native groups do not.
“Neither one seems to be correct,” said Mr. Drummond. First Nations are probably right to think of the core funding when they assess how much it will cost them to run their schools in the long term, he said, but some of the transitional funding probably should also be counted.
And second, all of the provinces provide differing levels of per capita funding and each of the more than 600 First Nations obtains different amounts from the federal government, depending on the levels of transitional funding they receive. Which makes it impossible to do meaningful comparisons, he said.
But assessing First Nations schools against provincially funded schools is not comparing apples with apples, said Mr. Drummond, because even rural non-native communities with low average incomes that qualify for extra provincial need-based funding tend to have far better social and economic conditions than the reserves.
Mr. Drummond also said he thinks it would be a “silly idea” for First Nations to do as Mr. Valcourt has urged and sign off on the education act before the funding issue has been settled. That would be signing on the dotted line “with somebody who tricked you 17 years ago,” he said.
First Nations were told in 1996 that the cap was a temporary measure to help eliminate a deficit, said Mr. Drummond. “And it’s about 17 years that we’ve had this 2 per cent cap going on in an area that we have had about 4 per cent growth in the student population.”
Shawn Atleo, the National Chief of the AFN, is in South Africa to attend a memorial for Nelson Mandela, but he left a video message that was played at the chiefs’ meeting in which he said there is no way the federal government can mistake what the First Nations are demanding on education.
Mr. Atleo said he was in Pikangikum in Northwestern Ontario recently and learned that there are 50 children in that community who cannot be accommodated in the kindergarten.
“These are little boys and girls who are looking forward to their very first day of school,” he said in a video to the chiefs, “but it’s taken away from them because they don’t get the same support as other schoolchildren in Canada.”
Gord Peters, the Grand Chief of the Association of Iroquois and Allied Indians, who sits on the AFN’s education council, said there has been a complete rejection of the legislation being proposed by the government. “It’s not an investment in our children,” said Mr. Peters. “Start over.”
JESSICA HUME, PARLIAMENTARY BUREAU
OTTAWA — The Idle No More movement was back on Parliament Hill Tuesday, but its anger was focussed to one particular topic that’s recently jarred First Nations groups: Education funding.
The First Nation Education Act has angered Native groups since it was tabled in October. Calling it unilateral and paternalistic, the groups say the legislation doesn’t give them enough say over the school system on reserves.
Derek Nepinak, grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs and one of the more outspoken chiefs, told a crowd of about 50 gathered on the Hill that when it comes to education among First Nations, “we were set up to fail.”
“They’ve only given us a fraction of what we need to run schools,” he said. “So we could not run schools to the same standards they set for themselves.”
Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt has indicated that once this new “legislative framework” has passed, he intends to invest new money into reserve schools.
“Our government intends to invest new funds in (kindergarten to Grade 12) education on reserve once a new legislative framework is passed, but we will not be able to advance legislation without support from First Nations,” Valcourt said. But Valcourt hasn’t put any concrete numbers on the funding. Many First Nations, already cynical about education systems they fear could be tools of assimilation, aren’t sure how they can agree to a new system without assurances the funding is there.
“A generation of first nations children is looking to Ottawa,” NDP Aboriginal critic Jean Crowder said in the House.
“When will that minister stop playing politics with First Nations education?”
Liberal aboriginal affairs critic Carolyn Bennett said Valcourt “won’t discuss equitable funding til after the Act passes.”
Valcourt shot back that “our First Nations children must have access to a comprehensive education regime that is currently available to other Canadian students and this cannot be achieved without legislation.”
After the rally on the Hill, Nepinak told reporters that despite the significantly smaller crowd than Idle No More protests last year, the movement, he believes, continues to gain momentum.
“The dialogue is ongoing,” he said. “The demands are still there but there’s some different solutions that are being pursued.”
“(Idle No More) isn’t as present on the streets, in the shopping malls, but it’s certainly there,” he said. “And it’s alive.”
Laura Beaulne-Stuebing – Ontario
One year ago, the first Idle No More day of action was an unexpected expression of aboriginal identity – and the beginning of what many call a remarkable movement. Roughly 1,000 protesters filled the lawns and steps of Parliament Hill on a snowy December day, drumming, making themselves heard.
Tuesday’s rally to mark a year of Idle No More was a meagre affair compared to the one in 2012. About fifty people gathered on the Hill to hear a handful of MPs and chiefs talk about the year that was and the year that’s ahead.
Assembly of Manitoba Chief Derek Nepinak and Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence spoke to the crowd under a bright sun in a winter chill, along with NDP MPs Charlie Angus and Romeo Saganash, and Carolyn Bennett from the Liberal party.
The rally was focused on the government’s proposed First Nations education act – a bill that few First Nations chiefs or communities feel meets their needs or their requests – and speakers at the rally vowed to oppose the bill, no ifs, ands or buts.
All the while, across the river in Gatineau, members of the Assembly of First Nations met for a three-day agenda-setting gathering, where they’re expected to find ways to push forward on resistance the the First Nations education bill.
“You can wait 10 years to build a road,” MP Carolyn Bennett said to the gathered crowd, referencing words from former Liberal prime minister Paul Martin. “But right now the childhood and the education of each little one is counting on us to actually make a difference.”
What anyone paying attention to First Nations issues in Canada – and the succession of legislation proposed by the department of aboriginal affairs, going through the House of Commons – likely knows, is that critics are frustrated with what they say is a “paternalistic” approach from the government and a lack of proper consultation with First Nations on pretty much every bill on the table.
“This is really, really important that this be right and that we go forward in a good way, and that means it has to be led by First Nations,” Bennett continued, about the education act. “This is a travesty what’s happening with this so-called consultation.”
But Bennett finished on a high note, adding that the work done over the past year is a hopeful sign and paying off.
Critics of the education act have also raised concerns about equitable funding – to match the kind of dollars allowed to students off reserve.
In the House of Commons Tuesday during question period, Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt responded to a question on just that topic, noting that the government has promised more funding – as long as an education framework can be agreed upon.
At the rally, Manitoba Chief Nepinak, who’s been outspoken on a number of things – ranging from the education act, the First Nations elections act and even of the AFN as an organization – said the legacy of residential schools informs the government’s approach to the education bill.
“I’ll tell you what, those conditions that gave rise to that type of system are here again,” he said. “They’ve come up again. And they’re showing themselves in the type of legislation that’s being drafted over the tables behind us here in these offices.”
Attawapiskat’s Theresa Spence, whose strike last year made a huge political statement and became an even bigger thorn in the side of the federal government, spoke to reporters briefly during the rally. She said First Nations are in for a fight to “expose” the government and its responsibilities to aboriginal communities that are in crisis.
A lot of the sentiments expressed in front of Parliament Hill were also expressed in the House during debate on C-9, the First Nations education bill. Opposition members, while approving of many aspects of the legislation, say they’re frustrated with a couple of clauses that just don’t make the bill acceptable.
Tuesday’s gathering marked a confluence – the anniversary of Idle No More, the eve of one year since Spence initiated her fast and the major AFN gathering across the river.
But Tuesday certainly wasn’t the fulfillment of what was promised last summer. Whatever unfolds between now and when Idle No More marks its second anniversary, it likely won’t be an easy year.
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