First Nations education is a national crisis

TheStar.com – news/globalvoices
Published On Mon Apr 18 2011.   By Craig and Marc Kielburger, Global Voices

Thirteen-year-old Shannen Koostachin didn’t want to sit, “sweaty and cold,” after gym class while northern winds whispered through walls cracked by shifting foundations. She didn’t want mice to eat her school lunch. She didn’t want to come home reeking of diesel fuel.

She and her classmates endured these horrendous schooling conditions and worse in Canada.

In 2000, J.R. Nakogee School in the remote Attawapiskat First Nation on James Bay was finally shut down after a diesel spill 20 years earlier contaminated the grounds. Shannen and the village’s 400 elementary students were squeezed into nine makeshift portables on the same fouled land. It was meant to be temporary.

It’s one of 515 reserve schools overseen by Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC), the federal department responsible for provincial and municipal-type services for First Nations.

After eight years of government refusals and a few broken promises, students cancelled their Grade 8 grad trip to Niagara Falls and headed to Ottawa to demand a new school. Shannen led them in a rally on Parliament Hill.

They were told there wasn’t enough money—the government had other priorities.

Shannen and her classmates fought back. Their Education is a Human Right Campaign, launched via Facebook and YouTube, inspired the support of thousands of students, teachers and religious groups across Canada. Attawapiskat students became the face of a generation of forgotten First Nations children. Shannen, their voice.

In December of 2009, the government again promised to rebuild the school.

“Nobody knows how the funding decisions are made in Ottawa,” National Assembly of First Nations Chief Shawn Atleo told us recently.

Despite promissory notes from INAC, he says, there is still no permanent school. The election campaign is cause for delay and even more frustration. And even if party leaders were talking about Attawapiskat, which they aren’t, there are “about 60” First Nations communities that have never had a school, Chief Atleo told us.

One inadequate school hardly encompasses the issue—decades of forced assimilation still resonate, treaty negotiations must be honoured. More than folding into Canada’s current policy framework, First Nations and Canadian governments must work on a long-term vision to rebuild a broken system.

Like Shannen, we believe education is a basic human right.

Reserve schools receive on average $2,000 less in annual funding per student than provincial schools, according to a study from the Caledon Institute of Social Policy. A fixed funding model covers the basics: teacher salaries and administration. Unlike provincial schools, there’s no money allocated for libraries, science or technology labs, athletic facilities or special education.

Worse, INAC’s regional offices each distribute funds differently, with little consistency and no transparency surrounding the process. And the kids feel the consequences.

More than half of First Nations youth on reserves don’t finish high school; kids in Attawapiskat start dropping out in Grade 5. These communities are often stricken by poverty, crime and high suicide rates.

Chief Atleo calls the policy failings that mire First Nations in poverty the country’s “perfect demographic storm.”

First Nations are the fastest-growing segment of our society, and over 50 per cent of that population is under the age of 23. It’s a stark contrast to Canada’s mainstream demographics—an aging population bracing for a labour shortage and strains on healthcare.

The economy is consistently ranked a top issue of national concern on Ipsos Reid’s rolling election polls. The Assembly of First Nations is pushing for disparities in education to become an election issue too, asking for what they call a “stimulus package.”

If First Nations caught up with provincial education standards, they would inject an estimated $179 billion into Canada’s GDP by 2026, both in labour support and by reducing strains on social services, according to a 2009 government-commissioned study.

It’s not always the case that moral imperatives and fiscal responsibilities match up so readily— but we’d say supporting First Nations education is an obvious solution.

Compounding the tragedy in Attawapiskat, Shannen Koostachin was killed in a car accident last spring. She was 15. On April 27 Shannen’s supporters will come together on a national day of awareness for students and educators, and call for an end to two-tiered education.

No child should have to fight for the right to go to school. But in Canada, north of the well-appointed offices on Parliament Hill, one young girl became the voice of a generation who’d never seen a real school, and was met with the silence of politicians. Shannen fought as she watched others drop out and give up hope. Canada can’t afford the wasted potential of our First Nations youth.

Ottawa should wake up and remember Shannen’s fight.

Marc and Craig Kielburger are children’s rights activists and co-founded Free The Children, which is active in the developing world. Their column appears Mondays online at thestar.com/globalvoices.Craig Kielburger is part of the Star’s Youth Nation 2011 Panel.

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