Tories get smart on native education

NationalPost.com – Opinion
Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2010.   John Ivison, National Post

Two years after the Prime Minister offered a formal apology to the survivors of Canada’s native residential schools, many Canadians would be shocked to learn the legislation governing education on most reserves remains the Indian Act of 1867. The sections on education gave the government the legal basis to intern native children under the policy of assimilation pursued at the time.

“The Indian Act’s provisions regarding education are completely obsolete, colonialist and an embarrassment to Canada,” said Michael Mendelson, senior scholar at the Caledon Institute of Social Policy, who has long advocated a First Nations Education Act to fill the legislative void.

After mulling the issue since coming to power nearly five years ago, it seems the Conservative government is coming around to the idea. John Duncan, the new Indian Affairs Minister, was in Saskatchewan last Friday, signing the latest in a series of agreements with regional groups of native bands that will see them establish local boards to set common standards and curriculum and supervise the performance of teachers and schools.

This patchwork of regional boards is starting to replace stand-alone band schools that more closely resemble the old village schools that disappeared from the rest of Canada in the 1930s. Mr. Duncan said in an interview that such agreements could eventually pave the way for a more comprehensive effort.

“This will probably lead to the foundation for a broader national effort,” he said in response to questions about the prospects for a First Nations Education Act.

Mr. Duncan said his experience is that “one size doesn’t fit all” when it comes to designing a response to the crisis in aboriginal education. Yet advocates of new legislation say that the piecemeal reforms currently emerging, though a step in the right direction, are too tentative. “They are like chipping away at a glacier with an ice-pick — during an ice age,” said Mr. Mendelson. “No system involving tens of thousands of people can be changed overnight, but the current processes are too little and too slow. We are losing another generation or perhaps two.”

Anyone who doesn’t think aboriginal education isn’t one of the most pressing public policy problems threatening the future prosperity of this country just isn’t paying attention.

A recent paper for the CD Howe Institute by Colin Busby looked at the problem in Manitoba. He noted that all provinces face the imminent retirement of a wave of Baby Boomers, raising the question about who will replace their contributions to the economy.

Since Manitoba and Saskatchewan have large — and growing — aboriginal populations (15% in the 2006 census), the educational performance of natives is a pressing issue.

The statistics are not encouraging: The proportion of people on reserve who have completed high school has not increased in the past decade and the gap between natives and non-natives is growing. The 2006 census suggested that 46% of young native males and 39% of young native women did not finish high school — compared to 16% and 11% respectively for non-natives. Obviously, this has consequences for employment prospects, but the impact on Canadian society extends well beyond lost talent. For example, U.S. studies suggest a high school diploma reduces the prospect an individual will commit violent or property crime, with one academic suggesting that each additional high school graduate saves the public nearly US$3,000 as a result of the reduction in crime.

Everyone involved in native education acknowledges aboriginal students receive less government funding per head than non-native students in provincial schools — even if they can’t agree how much less. Two years ago, Indian Affairs gave me some internal statistics that suggested it spent an average of $6,916 per student in 2006/07. This compared with a national average of $8,165 for non-natives in 2004/05, according to Statistics Canada. This gap has likely widened since then, since native education spending has been pegged at increases of 2% a year, while many provincial governments have ramped up spending.

Mr. Duncan acknowledged there is a funding gap and said a lot of work has been undertaken to help Ottawa “compare apples with apples.” When asked whether the feds would close the gap, he said: “That’s our intent.” Such an unusual commitment to future spending may or may not have something to do with a Liberal party pledge to close the funding gap.

Shawn Atleo, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said Prime Minister Stephen Harper told him aboriginal education is a priority for his government. “I’m happy to hear the Minister [Mr. Duncan] expressing similar sentiments. Perhaps this is the opportunity to produce transformational results for our young people,” he said.

There are good political reasons why tackling the native education problem works for the Conservatives, aside from the fact it is good policy. It is a classic “triangulation” issue — a move to the political centre by solving problems more traditionally associated with the Liberal party.

That’s why in this year’s budget, the government created a $30-million pot of cash available to First Nations that signed to participate in regional education boards.

No one thinks that these regional boards, or even a First Nations Education Act, will prove a panacea for all that ails the native education system. Certainly spending more money, without structural reforms, is doomed to failure.

But if the aim is efficiency, then grouping First Nations together to centralize services and establish common standards is the obvious way to proceed.

“As executive managers, school boards supervise their schools’ performance and, if the school board is doing its job properly, intervene when schools are not succeeding,” said Mr. Mendelson. Most of the 515 First Nations’ schools on-reserve do not have a board to help build and equip the school, manage budgets, hire teachers and monitor their performance, approve textbooks, nor enforce student attendance.

A new act would provide a comprehensive, statutory response that would set out the legal duties of all parties involved, including establishing a fair funding formula for First Nations schools. It would have the added benefits of consigning the Indian Act’s provisions to history — and would let the world know that native education is a top national priority.

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