Underfunding first nations a losing strategy

TheStarPhoenix.com – life/Column
October 5, 2012.    By Doug Cuthand, Special to The StarPhoenix

It’s no coincidence that Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan chose Tuesday to call a press conference a couple of doors down the street in Hull, Que., where the Assembly of First Nations was holding its chiefs’ assembly on education.

The AFN and other First Nations organizations have complained for some time about the shortfall in education funding for First Nations. They estimate that Duncan’s department provides a little more than $7,000 per student at on-reserve schools while the provinces spend more than $10,000 per student.

By Duncan’s estimates, his department spends more than $13,000 per student.

This is in sharp contrast to the figures presented by AFN and requires closer scrutiny. What numbers did the department throw into the hopper, and are they included in the provincial funding formula?

The federal government needs to explain how it came up with such a huge discrepancy after years of capping increases in First Nations funding at two per cent a year, an amount that cannot keep up with population growth and inflation.

The federal auditor general’s 2011 status report detailed the growing shortfall between schools funded by Indian Affairs and provincial schools.

In the statement to introduce the report, the interim AG stated: “Government’s progress has also been unsatisfactory in the area of programs for First Nations on reserves. I am very disappointed that conditions on reserves have worsened and are well below the national average.

“The education gap between First Nations living on reserves and the general Canadian population has widened. Houses are in poor condition, and the housing shortage on reserves has increased. More than half of the drinking water systems on reserves still pose a significant risk to communities.”

Yet, the Department of Aboriginal Affairs somehow knows more than the auditor general, who is charged with responsibility of reviewing the effectiveness of government spending. Our people know what money comes through the school house door, and that it’s inadequate.

But this is par for the course with the Harper government. Rather than work with First Nations groups, it is in confrontation mode.

It fiddles with the math and blames the victim. Duncan also left the veiled threat that legislation would be forthcoming, without making it clear what that would be or how it would affect our treaties and aboriginal rights.

Despite all the smoke and mirrors, education remains seriously underfunded in First Nations communities. About half of the national First Nations population is under 18 years of age. This makes education a serious part of our strategy for a better lifestyle in the future.

To deny our people a quality education only means more generations living in poverty. Underfunding education in the long run is a policy that’s penny-wise and pound-foolish.

Underfunding is endemic throughout the Aboriginal Affairs Department.

Duncan recently announced that funding to First Nations political organizations would drop in the future.

For example, the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations will receive $500,000 for 2014 instead of the $1.6 million it currently receives.

In 2007 the First Nations Child and Caring Society and the AFN began a human rights challenge that has since become a court challenge. The case has yet to be heard in court. The government has fought the case on legal technicalities at every turn and argued that it does not belong in the court system.

This raises the question: If the case doesn’t belong in the court system, has the government taken a serious look at the claim by advocacy groups that First Nations child welfare is underfunded at 22 per cent below provincial levels, or is it prepared to use creative math to refute that fact, as well?

So far the government has spent $3.1 million on legal fees to stall the process. But the Federal Court has rejected Ottawa’s arguments and ordered a full hearing at the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal. The hearing is set for Feb. 1, but I expect the government will try to stall the process even longer.

Now that the government is on the ropes, the line from the minister’s office is that: “The best way to ensure First Nations children and families get the supports and services they need is by working together – with First Nations, provinces and territories.”

Duncan says the government wants to work with others, but his actions this week contradict his words. He would rather fight than deal with the very real issues that affect our children.

The First Nations/Ottawa joint action plan on First Nations education fell apart this week, with the chiefs at the AFN education assembly voting to withdraw from the process. According to some of the chiefs, the last straw was the minister’s statement on First Nations education funding. The message is that there will be no additional funding for First Nations education, which was a major part of the agenda of the joint action plan.

For his part, Duncan stated in typical government doublespeak: “I am … disappointed that given our commitment to work together, and without having engaged in any formal discussions or consultations with the government, the chiefs’ assembly on education has rejected the development of a First Nation Education Act.”

The government’s tactics are blowing up in its face.

The human rights tribunal no doubt will be faced with the facts of consistent underfunding of child welfare. A positive decision will cost the government much more than child welfare. It will have to look at all the underfunding for First Nations and make things right.

Otherwise we will have to accept that racial discrimination is a viable way for the government to save money.

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