Faulty federal math hurts reserve schools

NationalPost.com – Opinion – Faulty federal math hurts reserve schools
Published: Thursday, October 30, 2008. John Ivison

OTTAWA -Prime Minister Stephen Harper said during the election campaign that the most serious problem this country will face going forward is a shortage of skilled labour. As the global financial crisis bites, and thousands are thrown out of work, he might be reassessing that statement.

But while it may not be his most immediate headache, there’s no doubt that the effect of so many Baby Boomers retiring, coupled with a low birth rate, is going to be an economic earthquake, the tremors of which were already being felt before the current crisis hit. The Bank of Canada released a survey recently, in which 40% of firms said labour shortages were restricting their ability to meet demand.

This should be good news for Canada’s First Nations. Their people are young — the median age on reserves is 22, compared to 36 for all Canadians — and they have burgeoning population growth, with a rate three times the rest of Canada.

Yet, aboriginal Canadians are unlikely to be the source of solutions to the problem in years to come, unless there are some drastic changes to public policy, according to a new study for the CD Howe Institute by Simon Fraser University professor John Richards.

By looking at 2006 census data, Professor Richards discovered only two-thirds of aboriginal Canadians between the ages of 25 and 44 have a high school diploma, compared with nine out of 10 non-native Canadians.

The global figure masks some even more worrying statistics — less than 40% of First Nations adults who live on reserves graduated from high school, a gap of 50% with the rest of Canada. In Manitoba, only one in four males aged 20 to 24 on reserves is likely to have finished high school.

This matters because the employment rate nearly doubles for those with a high school diploma and continues to rise as you move up the education ladder. Only one in three aboriginal Canadians who did not graduate from high school had a job in 2006, according to the census.

Since there are currently 75,000 kids in schools on reserves, the findings suggest we are storing up trouble, as a small army of poor, unemployed natives looks for outlets for its discontent, instead of contributing to increasing the nation’s store of wealth.

So, what to do? Outcomes for Indians living off-reserve and for Metis were much better (60% and 75% graduation rates, respectively) but, short of cutting off federal funding for the reserve system (an option with which many readers may feel sympathy, but which is politically toxic), the answer has to lie in improving the quality of reserve schools.

The problem here is that many of them are run by local bands that have neither the resources nor expertise to develop a curriculum, assess students and teachers, or manage facilities. They are further hindered by funding that does not match provincial levels. In 1996, the federal government instituted a 2% cap on funding increases that, over time, has meant a 7% drop in real dollars, after adjustments for inflation and population growth.

As the National Post revealed in April, spending by the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) on the average native student was $6,916 in 2006-07, compared with a provincial average of $8,165 (INAC had never released that number before, saying comparisons are “difficult” –no wonder).

The inevitable result is that teachers get paid less on reserves, there are more students per teacher and there are fewer resources. When combined with the haphazard governance regimes, the grim graduation statistics should come as no surprise. There have been attempts made to arrest this decline, particularly in New Brunswick and British Columbia, where a tripartite agreement between Ottawa, the provincial government and aboriginal groups has produced a First Nations Education Steering Committee to run the reserve school system.

This is an approach advocated by Michael Mendelson, senior scholar at the Caledon Institute, who has noted that non-native rural schools were consolidated into larger boards many years ago, “sometimes over the strenuous objection of local committees.”

Even though the B. C. initiative shows promise, there has been little real progress because it diverts funding from participating bands to the new aboriginal-run school authority. Local band councils, more anxious about preserving their autonomy and funding than the graduation rates of their young people, are resisting reform, according to the Richards report.

The way to break this logjam would seem to be the promise of increased reserve education funding to provincial levels, if bands participate — essentially making them an offer they can’t refuse.

James Wilson, director of education at the Opaskwayak Education Authority in Manitoba, thinks this strategy would work. “My father, who’s now retired, said that we fought so hard and for so many years to control education locally that it’s now hard to let go. But we have to be willing to look at why we did it in the first place and ask whether we should give up control, if it is for the benefit of our students,” he said.

The federal government has said it will increase native education funding by $268-million over five years — a move Mr. Wilson says is a step in the right direction, but one that is unlikely to bridge the gap between what on-reserve and provincial schools spend (the increase works out at around $700 per head, while the funding gap in such provinces as Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba is close to $3,000).

For a government that has pitched a vision of self-governing, self-sufficient First Nations communities, funded by their own tax base, increased aboriginal education funding should be considered an essential investment, even at a time when the spectre of deficit looms so large.


Copyright © 2007 CanWest Interactive, a division of CanWest MediaWorks Publications, Inc.. All rights reserved.

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