Fix aboriginal schools

TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorial
Published On Fri Apr 30 2010

If an aboriginal girl attends school off-reserve, Ottawa reimburses the Ontario government for the $12,000 that it costs to educate her in a provincial classroom. But if that same student goes to school on her own reserve, the federal government budgets barely half that amount for her education.

That indefensible double standard is just one of many reasons for the appalling education gap that persists between aboriginal children and all other Canadians: 60 per cent of First Nations students in reserve schools drop out; for non-aboriginals, the rate is 9.5 per cent.

But as former prime minister Paul Martin argued at a Toronto conference on aboriginal education this week, a lack of funding and an absence of political will cannot be allowed to create paralysis. The realities of native demographics simply won’t allow it.

Indigenous Canadians make up the youngest and fasting growing segment of the population. Without improved education, they will flounder. Equipped with the fundamentals at an early age, they can lead more fulfilled lives and contribute to Canada’s economy in a time of labour shortages.

As Martin made clear, there are not just gaps in funding and outcomes but also roadblocks to change, because educators are often too isolated to compare notes. A non-profit foundation set up by Martin’s family in 2006 is bridging those gaps by sharing best practices — online, on-reserve and off-reserve. Mentorships are helping natives stay the course and land on a career track, and programs on literacy and numeracy are reaching out to parents.

Provincial and territorial ministers meeting in Toronto this week have also called on Ottawa to show greater leadership by convening a First Ministers’ Meeting. It was five years ago that Martin’s government forged agreement between Ottawa, the provinces and native groups for the $5 billion Kelowna Accord, which would have addressed educational issues. When the Conservatives took power in 2006, one of their first acts was to kill Kelowna. All these years later, Canada’s aboriginal youth cannot wait much longer for a coherent federal focus on education, backed by serious funding.

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