First Nations Children: The back of the bus
TheStar.com – opinion/editorialopinion
Published On Tue Apr 26 2011. Catherine Fife
There has been a lot of hot air about coalitions and majorities in this election campaign and about when bickering is not bickering. None of this inspires any hope for First Nations children and youth living in Canada’s remote communities and struggling to get a decent education. The story of Shannen Koostachin illustrates the tragic and ongoing neglect of a key national issue.
It was the dream of Shannen Koostachin, a young Cree student, to have a real school. Tragically, Shannen’s life ended much too soon in a 2010 road accident, but her dream of equal rights for First Nations children has not died. That dream has grown into a social justice movement that is gaining momentum and leading to a National Day of Action on April 27.
Shannen’s First Nation community, Attawapiskat, has struggled without an elementary school for more than 10 years and continues to wait for government promises to be honoured. Attawapiskat is not alone. There are many other First Nations communities across the country without adequate school facilities. And all First Nations communities face the systemic problem of education funding that falls very far short of what their children need and deserve. This builds a shameful picture of neglect, it is un-Canadian and violates the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
In November 2010, the Shannen’s Dream campaign was launched at a public elementary school in Ottawa. Students from Attawapiskat came face-to-face with their non-native counterparts in Elgin Street Public School.
“Why can’t we have a school like this?” they asked.
Chelsea Edwards, an Attawapiskat student leader, described what the long wait for an elementary school feels like for her and for other First Nations children. In a heart-searing echo of the words of Rosa Parks, Chelsea said, “We are at the back of the bus.”
Canada’s failure to address the growing gap in education funding for on-reserve schools will hold every Canadian back. It defies imagination how the human argument — the calls for social justice or children’s rights — continues to fall on deaf ears and fails to elicit a human response from those who seek to lead this country. How could anyone not be moved by the young boy who told the students in Ottawa, “I have two eyes, arms, legs and one heart just like you. We are the same. We deserve a school just like you.”
There is no denying that the level playing field for First Nations children does not exist. The numbers don’t lie. Annual funding for an elementary student in Toronto is at least $3,000 more than for a First Nations child on reserve. The funding formula for First Nations education has not been revised in 22 years; it has not kept pace with costs in 13 years. Now that we are in the midst of a federal election campaign, it is time for all political parties to commit to an equitable approach to education funding. Following through on this promise might provide some credibility to the apologies that already seem long forgotten.
Ontario Public School Board trustees have taken this cause to heart and were recently joined by other Canadian school boards. This is an issue of national importance. Our future as a country is intrinsically connected to the future of First Nations peoples. Education is the most effective investment to interrupt cycles of poverty, ill health and despair. Some will question why municipally elected trustees dedicate our time, energy and limited resources toward an education issue beyond our direct responsibility.
My answer is always the same: How can we stand by, watch and do nothing? Standing up for the rights of children, whether or not they live in our community, allows us to confront inequity and, more importantly, involves us in acknowledging that our future as a country is linked with that of First Nations peoples. This is a vision and commitment that has to be defended.
There is a practical side as well. When we welcome students making the transition from schools in their First Nations communities into provincial schools, we do not want that transition to be filled with frustration and disappointment and seemingly insurmountable hurdles. We want to break that cycle of inequity. This is our time to stand up and call for change.
First Nations children are not asking for charity. They deserve justice — and a seat at the front of the bus, every bus, including the election campaign bus.
Catherine Fife is president of the Ontario Public School Boards Association.
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