Defeatist attitude biggest obstacle to tackling native problems

Posted on June 10, 2011 in Equality Debates

Source: — Authors: – news/politics
Published Wednesday, Jun. 08, 2011. Last updated Thursday, Jun. 09, 2011.   Adam Radwanski

For a fleeting moment last month, the Premier of Canada’s largest province turned his attention to one of the country’s biggest social policy failings.

At an otherwise dreary press conference convened to discuss Ontario’s unchanged credit rating, Dalton McGuinty was asked about the recent deaths of aboriginal students in the province’s North. As though he’d been waiting for the opportunity, he seized on the question to express his ambitions for a greater role in on-reserve education.

“The question is what more can we do at the provincial level to provide the quality curriculum that we’d like to be able to develop with our first nations communities,” Mr. McGuinty said. “If somebody said at the federal level ‘I’ll give you the money, and you provide that quality of education that you’re doing off-reserve,’ I’d jump at that chance.”

It was all encouragingly aspirational, and the timing – with Prime Minister Stephen Harper finally showing signs of engagement on aboriginal policy, and education in particular – seems promising. But there was also a passive, almost defeatist quality; one that helps explain why so little has been done to bring hope to places where it’s in short supply.

The subtext was that, while in a perfect world Mr. McGuinty would love to help, this isn’t really his problem. And technically, that’s quite right. Reserves are some of the only places where Ottawa is mandated to deliver social services, and its dismal record in doing so is reflected by a dropout rate of roughly 60 per cent.

But when there is a void in leadership from one level of government, it behooves others to step into the void.

That needn’t mean going so far as some advocates would like to see, and fully incorporating on-reserve schools into provincial systems. But it could surely involve greater provincial involvement in shaping curriculum, in training teachers and administrators, and in providing other resources.

Some provinces, notably British Columbia and Nova Scotia, have ventured some ways down that road. But others, including Ontario, have mostly remained on the sidelines.

For this, the province’s cash-strapped government has reasonable excuses. A meaningful, targeted contribution to first nations education in Ontario would probably only cost tens of millions of dollars annually, but would set a worrying precedent if that money came from the province. If education, then why not also health care and clean drinking water and everything else Ottawa falls short on? Before long, it could significantly contribute to what the province already considers an unfair fiscal framework.

But it’s also a matter of will and of focus. And Mr. McGuinty’s lack of either on this front has been reflected, among other ways, by the way he’s treated the aboriginal affairs posting in his cabinet.

It was used as a demotion for Michael Bryant, when he fell out of favour. It was used as a stepping stone for Brad Duguid, a relative novice whose initiative – including working with the private sector to start up a “right-to-play” program aimed at engaging youth through sports – resulted in a quick promotion. Now, it doesn’t really have a designated minister at all; instead, it’s been tacked onto Attorney-General Chris Bentley’s responsibilities.

In a province where the poorest communities are out of sight and out of mind – remote northern outposts that few Ontarians ever venture to – there’s little political advantage for the Premier in paying them close attention. And depressingly, some of Mr. McGuinty’s rivals are even less engaged – the only mentions of first nations communities in Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak’s platform, other than a commitment to respect their interest in resource development, are promises to crack down on their law-breaking.

But Mr. McGuinty is the self-styled “education premier,” and has otherwise shown a considerable social conscience. So how is it that he’s shown only sporadic interest in the fact that within his province’s boundaries, communities are racked with poverty and crime and addiction partly because their schools are incapable of giving children a decent start in life?

There will be more opportunities ahead for the Premier to make good on the interest he showed last month. But to capitalize on them, Mr. McGuinty – or whoever is in his office after this fall’s election – will have to decide the plight of Ontario’s first nations isn’t just someone else’s problem.

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