By Lloyd Dolha
A new agreement will soon provide First Nations students attending schools on reserve in British Columbia with access to quality education programs on par with provincial schools. The Tripartite Educations Framework Agreement (signed in Ottawa on January 27th) promises consistent year-to-year funding for on-reserve schools, plus an additional $15 million annually to help the First Nations Education Steering Committee (FNESC) offer support services to the schools.
First Nations students often move back and forth between First Nations and provincial schools and are the most likely to drop out. Approximately 39% of youth living on-reserve complete high school. Under the agreement, the FNESC has committed to deliver quality education programs and services to on-reserve students meeting standards that will allow First Nations students to transfer to provincial public schools at similar levels of academic achievement without penalty. “Our mandate is to improve First Nations education,” said FNESC president Tyrone McNeil. “This agreement reaffirms our commitment to continue the working relationship based on mutual respect, recognition, collaboration, and clarity of roles and responsibilities for First Nations education.”
The FNESC reached the agreement after six years of negotiations with provincial and federal governments shaping the strategy to improve Aboriginal education in the province. At issue was the gap in per pupil funding, which is estimated to be 20 to 30% less for on-reserve students, and the FNESC’s unwillingness to cede control to provincial authorities in exchange for additional funding. The agreement commits the signing partners to work toward improving educational outcomes and graduation rates of First Nations students. The FNESC will administer education programs and second level (school district) services to First Nations-run schools.
First Nations Schools Association (FNSA) president Greg Louie said the agreement means wages for teachers in the province’s 131 First Nations-run schools will be commensurate with their provincial counterparts. There will be funding for language and culture programs, as well as transportation for remote schools in the province. “It’s been a long time coming,” said Louie. “There’s still more work to be done, but it’s a step in the right the direction.”
In a related development, a three-member panel on First Nations education has released its initial findings and recommendations. In the report titled “Nurturing the Spirit of First Nations,” the panel calls for the creation of a First Nations Education Act that recognizes the right to education, outlines the responsibilities of concerned parties, and ensures First Nations education systems are controlled by First Nations. “There is no First Nations education system that consistently supports and delivers positive outcomes for First Nations students in Canada,” said panel chair Scott Haldane. “Without that support, it’s very difficult for them to achieve the goals they have for young people and for young people to achieve their full potential.”
Right now, there is only a patchwork of programs and initiatives. The report recommends reliable statutory funding based on the needs of individual communities, not the average amount of money per child. The panel also recommends creating regional support networks similar to school boards, as well as establishing a special fund focused on education infrastructure, a full inventory of infrastructure needs, a ten-year capital plan, and the allocation of an emergency fund. The panel recommended that Ottawa increase funding for education on reserves by the same amount provincial governments are increasing funding to public schools for 2012-13 The panel wants an interim national commission to begin implementing the recommendations in three months. Minister Duncan would not commit to implementing any of the recommendations or providing any additional funds.
The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs (AMC) denounced the report’s findings. “The recommendations from the panel are not news… The recommendations, as predicted by many of us who have been advocating change for our people for a long time, are a reiteration of what has been known amongst our grassroots people for years and written about extensively over the past three decades, most notably in the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples,” said AMC grand chief Derek Nepinak. The AMC points out that the panel represents a poor investment in limited financial resources that would have been better spent on creating solutions and seeking tangible and real results for a better quality education for our young people in education. They argue that the real work is a process of repatriation of education back to First Nations control, which will lead First Nations driven processes in the development of education legislation. The role of government should play is to find the means to accommodate those grassroots efforts. The AMC said funding parity must be entrenched in law to build a culturally appropriate curriculum, as well as investment in adequate infrastructure such as new schools. “Investing millions in the much needed infrastructure today will save billions of dollars in social programs tomorrow,” said Nepinak.