Well-known problems, absent solutions

Posted on November 9, 2011

By Samantha Power

Vue Weekly

The national panel on Aboriginal education creates controversy over treaty rights

It's internationally acknowledged that Canada is failing to provide equal access to education for Aboriginal students, so when a new national panel was announced last year, it came to the disappointment of many that there would be yet another discussion about the state of education, rather than a constructive action plan.

The problems facing Aboriginal children in Canada are well-documented. Current reports estimate funding for Aboriginal students on-reserve is $2000 to $3000 less per student than those off-reserve. Though the funding matter has been raised in Parliament, it hasn't been addressed. Similarly, graduation rates among Aboriginal populations are 40 percent lower than non-Aboriginal populations, according to the Conference Board of Canada.

Official opposition Critic for Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Linda Duncan voiced that concern when the panel visited Alberta last week.

"The Minister of Aboriginal Affairs has used the hearings by the panel to deflect calls for urgent action to address First Nations' access to schools, including repeat recommendations by the federal auditor general," said Duncan. "The government should be acting without delay to ensure equal access to quality education for Aboriginal children."

The lack of action is especially surprising this year, as Canada is facing a review of its progress on advancing the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which includes the need to provide equitable education to Aboriginal children. Equitable treatement as outlined in the recent report from the Canadian Coalition for the Rights of the Child is defined as secure and sustainable capital funding, support for development and organization and delivery of culturally appropriate education to every school-aged child.

Scott Haldane, the chair of the national panel which was in Alberta this past week, says that, this time, the discussions are about action. Haldane makes clear that the concerns identified by international groups are the ones voiced by groups he is meeting around the country. "Issues of funding come up all the time," says Haldane. "Without it, it's difficult to attract teachers and maintain resources—computers that work, and keep books in the shop." But Duncan doesn't understand why these issues can't be addressed immediately.

"Frankly, many of the already well-documented issues should be being addressed in the interim. That includes the significant shortfall in investment in education of Aboriginal children compared to other Canadians," said Duncan in a statement last week. "The Federal Auditor General has decried the scandalous discriminatory treatment of Aboriginals and called for major structural reforms and legislated right to quality education equal to other Canadians."

But it's more than an issue of funding to Aboriginal groups across the country. Over 200 Aboriginal groups and representatives in three provinces have pulled out of the national panel's roundtables due to their concern over a violation of treaty rights and access to a diverse and culturally appropriate education.

Although no Aboriginal groups in Alberta boycotted the process, over 230 groups have pulled their participation in Saskatchewan, Quebec and Ontario. It's a position that breaks with the Assembly of FIrst Nations, which has signed onto the panel. "Unfortunately, the AFN, our own national First Nations organization, is not listening to us, and appears to have been co-opted by the federal government in supporting a process that will only serve to create legislation that weakens our treaty right to education," says said Vice Chief Lyle Whitefish of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations in a statement released in August when the roundtables were announced. "The Chiefs Legislative Assembly Resolution #1771 rejects the national panel whose stated purpose and process will diminish the federal government's treaty obligations with respect to education," says Whitefish.

The primary concern is over the creation of "one-size-fits-all" legislation that would fail to recognize the right to access culturally appropriate education. The groups are also concerned that the panel's mandate does not mention the UN Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, which represents 74 First Nations in Saskatchewan, is collecting information on what a treaty-based education system would look like and is submitting it to INAC and the AFN for consideration.

Haldane says First Nations control of education is one of the major topics that continues to come up. "Control has been theoretically in the hands of First Nations for 20 – 30 years," says Haldane. "The people we met with say control without the mechanisms and resources to provide secondary and tertiary supports and without provincial support where students are attending school is not control."

Support from the provinces is becoming important not only in assisting national objectives, but in overcoming the barriers between two school systems. Children in Aboriginal communities may access education provided on reserve or in provincial systems, but the two systems are far from cohesive. "There are significant transfers of funding from First Nations to the provincial system to pay for those students who may go into the provincial system," says Haldane. "The provinces recognize that they need to do a better job because they see the graduation rates."

But fundamentally the federal government is the one that needs to take the lead, as the CCRC report reiterates. Haldane makes clear this doesn't necessarily require the creation of an Aboriginal education act, though there is some marginal support for one. "Certainly in Alberta we heard from many who said, 'Done right, developed jointly, legislation could be the answer,' because children need to be protected in terms of funding, establishment of First Nations institutions needs to be enabled through legislation and the rights of the child to a quality education," explains Haldane. "There seems to be great openness as long as First Nations are very much engaged as equal partners and as long as this legislation wouldn't undermine treaty and inherent rights. Any legislation would have to put treaty rights into action."

A national roundtable is scheduled for the week of November 21 with the final report to the National Chief of the AFN and the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development to be delivered on December 31.