First Nations rally for greater education

By Lloyd Dolha

First Nations groups from across eastern Canada rallied in Ottawa and Winnipeg, demanding greater access to resources to address the chronic underfunding of First Nations schools and the recognition of aboriginal education as an aboriginal and treaty right.

“We have gathered to unite our voices as one and to call on the government of Canada to provide First Nations with a guarantee that ensures First Nations students can have a quality, culturally relevant education from early childhood to postsecondary,” said Assembly of First Nations (AFN) national chief Shawn Atleo, to a crowd of thousands on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, September 23rd. “Our call is above all about fairness. First Nation education funding is the only education funding that has been capped arbitrarily at two percent annually since 1996. First Nations schools receive no resources for computers, software, libraries, language immersion or support systems.”

The national chief called for greater resources to address the chronic underfunding and for the federal government to work with First Nations to create a better system that enables success for students that is supported, integrated and sustainable. The AFN estimates that more than 15,000 aboriginal students have been shut out of college or university since the cap was put in place.

Numerous reports and studies have accessed the flaws in the federal approach to aboriginal education. The Auditor General has repeatedly urged government to get its house in order and work collaboratively with First Nations to address education needs, and the Parliamentary Budget Officer has noted the lack of a sound and consistent policy approach by the federal government on First Nation education and infrastructure.

“The government of Canada is failing aboriginal peoples,” said Cassandra Opikokew, chairperson of the National Aboriginal Caucus of the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS). “The treaty rights of aboriginal peoples are more than just a promise, they are a moral obligation and an economic necessity.”

The federation points out that cost of funding aboriginal learners is significantly outweighed by the return. According to a recent report by the Centre for the Study of Living Standards, closing the education attainment gap would increase to potential contribution of aboriginal Canadians to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to over $400 billion over a 20 year period.

“The federal government must live up to its obligations and ensure that every able and willing aboriginal student is able to access post-secondary education,” added Opikokew.

The rally on Parliament Hill was also the culmination of a walk by a group of First Nations citizens and supporters from Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg (near Maniwaki, Quebec), led by Gilbert Whiteduck, who walked more than 135 kilometers from their community to Ottawa in support of First Nations education.

The rally also included participation by the Canadian Confederation of Students (CCS), the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), and the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE).

In Winnipeg, about 100 people demonstrated outside the downtown office of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC), demanding improvements to education funding for First Nation’s schools on-reserve throughout the province.

“Our children face many challenges just to receive their education in the early years, from unsafe school buildings to receiving 30 percent less funding than provincially-run schools,” said Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs (AMC), Grand Chief Ron Evans. “We want to work. We want to be educated. Our students need to be nurtured and taught like any other Canadian learner.”

Schools on three Manitoba First Nations, including two accessible by air only, are closed, while several others are plagued by overcrowding, mould and building deterioration, added the grand chief.

The elementary school in Oxford House, about 950 kilometers northeast of Winnipeg, has been closed since January 21st because of health dangers, including black mould. The school was closed after students complained for weeks of bad coughs, rashes, headaches and nausea.

The Winnipeg rally was held the same day as the 98th meeting of the Council of Ministers of Education Canada was being held in the city.

Aboriginal education “remains a priority,” said provincial and territorial education ministers the following day, adding that more meeting are planned to follow up on a 2009 conference that focused on aboriginal education.

“Ministers continue to work collaboratively to eliminate the gap in academic achievement and graduation rates between aboriginal and non-aboriginal students,” said a joint communiqué at the end of the minister’s meeting. “Ministers underscored their commitment and interest in continued engagement with [national aboriginal organizations].

The meeting was chaired by Diane Mc Gifford, the minister of Advanced Education in Manitoba. McGifford said further meetings would be set up with officials from the federal government.

A recent report published in August says an alarming number of First Nations students living on-reserve are not graduating from high school.

According to the report of the Ottawa-based Caledon Institute of Public Policy, high school graduation rates of aboriginal people are far below are far below those of people in the rest of Canada, and the situation is particularly bad on reserves.

The report, titled Aboriginal Peoples and Post-Secondary Education in Canada, found that 58 percent of on-reserve aboriginal people between the ages of 20 and 24 had not graduated from high school. Among all people across Canada, the comparable 2001 rate was 16 percent.

In Saskatchewan and Alberta, the on-reserve rate for people 20-24 with less than high school was 61 percent. In Manitoba, it was 71 percent.