National panel on native education gives Ottawa a failing grade

TheStar.com – opinion/editorials
Published On Fri Feb 10 2012.    Editorial

The last thing First Nations children need is another report by another group of experts saying what everyone knows: native education is an utter failure. Unfortunately, what they got this week was just that — one more report to add to the pile. It amounts to little more than evidence of government delay and waste of precious resources.

The time and money could have been better spent building schools or hiring teachers for any of the reserves across Canada that desperately need them. It isn’t that the panel members didn’t work hard travelling the country for eight months, or didn’t come up with some sensible recommendations. They did.

The problem is that this government, the one before it, and so on, know everything that’s in this report. Native education is a disaster and always has been. Ottawa basically hands off far too little money to hundreds of reserves (regardless of their capabilities) to operate individual schools and pays no attention at all to the terrible outcomes for children.

Less than 40 per cent of native students — half the rate for non-natives — graduate from high school. It’s a tragedy for them and a terrible waste of potential for the country.

But setting up committees to study the problem seems to be about all this government is prepared to do about it. The panel members set deadlines for action: three months to set up a commission to reform native education and 18 months to introduce education legislation. Those are hardly onerous to meet. Yet Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan dismissed them as “aspirational timelines.”

Just how long does he want to delay necessary action? These kids are not on ice in a deep freezer waiting for Ottawa and First Nations leadership to get their act together. They struggle every day with inadequate curriculum and transient teachers in schools that ought to be condemned. Each year, each month, that we delay in fixing this mess increases the odds that they’ll drop out in frustration.

Two of the panel’s recommendations can, and should, be carried out immediately. Ottawa must start to properly fund native education. Right now it provides thousands of dollars less per student than provinces spend to educate non-native kids.

The report also recommends creating a commission, co-appointed by Ottawa and First Nations, to run a real education system, create school boards and set standards. That’s all needed, but there’s no point in reinventing the wheel. Much of this can be accomplished best and quickest by working with the provinces, which already have education ministries and extensive experience.

All Duncan has said so far is that he’ll review the report. That has raised fears that it will be shelved alongside all the previous ones. We can only hope that Duncan will prove the skeptics wrong and will finally carry out the reforms we have long known are needed.

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