Native Education Centre’s Final Graduation: Lack of Funding Threatens Closure of B.C.’s oldest aboriginal Post-Secondary Institution

By Lloyd Dolha

The fate and future of Vancouver’s oldest and best known First Nations post-secondary institute now lies in the hands of a small cadre of faceless bureaucrats in the Ministry of Advanced Education.

Following an announcement of the coming closure of the Native Education Centre (now known as the Native Education College) in mid-June, an independent review by the Ministry of Advanced Education, in conjunction with the centre’s board of directors and the First Nations Leadership Council , was struck to explore viable options for the continuance of existing programs and services to the aboriginal community.
Announced on July 4th, the independent review will be conducted over a two-week period in July with its recommendations to be made before the end of the month.
“The board of directors looks back proudly at serving the needs of the aboriginal community by providing post-secondary training in a traditional long house setting since 1985,” said NEC chairman, Chief David Walkem, in the prepared statement.”We look forward to the outcome of the independent review and to implementing the recommendations.”

According to the background information sent out by the NEC, the centre has calculated it will require an additional $1.5 million to face those challenges and maintain its existing programs for aboriginal people.

As the province’s most reknowed aboriginal post secondary institute, the centre has provided greater access for employment opportunities for the city’s urban aboriginal population through a variety of programs that includes vocational and academic training in business technologies, tourism operations and family support services and others. These programs have assisted over 2,100 First Nations students move onto greater opportunities over the decades of the centre’s existence, since its conception in 1967.

NEC president Huia Martin, said the centre’s annual grant of $1.4 million has been frozen over the past three years and is just one of the pressures leading to the centre’s possible demise. He said the terms of reference for the independent review makes no mention of additional funding nor has there been any commitment of additional funds from anyone involved in the review.

“I’m hoping that there’s going to be an option that allows us to stay open, maybe a reduced operating mandate – whatever that might look like,” he said. “We might have to downsize or staff and programs, restructure.”

Martin noted that a big part of the problem facing the aboriginal institute is declining enrollment due to the abundance of high-paying, labour jobs in the booming construction economy the province is currently enjoying.

“That’s great for a short period of time. But if there’s a downturn in the economy and skills are required because labour-type jobs haven’t provided those skills, then what happens? Back to school then or on to another low-paying job, “ said Martin.
Martin said enrollment has been dropping incrementally in all post-secondary institutions.

April Arsenault, Family & Community Counselling coordinator for NEC, said the future of what a restructured centre would look like should be determined by the students and the urban aboriginal community, instead of a few bureaucrats in Victoria.
“I think that the [aboriginal] community needs to talk about what the community wants in restructuring,” she said. “It’s great that the government has these guidelines, but its really the community that can tell Native Ed what they want for programming.”