Federal budget to significantly boost funding for First Nations education
OTTAWA - The federal budget will contain new funding for First Nations schooling, but likely not as much as native education advocates had hoped.
After months of fact-finding and discussion with First Nations and experts, the Canadian Press has learned, the federal government is ready to allocate funding that can be put to use relatively quickly.
That's despite earlier rumblings the government would start small, with a pilot project or two while trying to eliminate the federal deficit.
The First Nations package is also expected to include new accountability measures so Aboriginal Affairs can guarantee the money is actually spent on education, and not re-routed to other needs.
One source pegged the new funding at about $130 million a year, less than the $500 million the Assembly of First Nations has said is needed.
The AFN wants to see native schools receive the same funding increases as provincial schools. The association pegs the gap in funding at between $56 million and $84 million a year.
Funding to bring curriculum development and teachers' pay up to par would cost an extra $182 million a year.
And capital spending to pay for the estimated 48 new schools and 11 renovations needed on reserves across the country would require a $235-million injection.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has indicated he is not ready to pump large amounts of money into native education until major reforms in governance are set up to ensure the money will work effectively.
Harper has also indicated he will take guidance from the joint task force he formed with the AFN a year ago. The task force, in a February report, set out aggressive timelines for government to bring First Nations funding in line with provincial education funding, and re-orient the native system so that more children would graduate.
"The national panel reflects our shared goal of seeing First Nations students succeed and prosper," said Jason MacDonald, a spokesman for Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan.
"It will help to inform our way forward as we continue to work toward ensuring that First Nations students achieve the same educational outcomes as other Canadians."
Still, the government does not need to finish all its reforms to start making concrete improvements to the system, said Scott Haldane, who headed up the task force.
The budget should at least contain enough funding and direction to take some of the immediate pressure from teachers and band schools, he said.
"The 2012 federal budget is really just an indicator, because our report goes well beyond what we expected or recommended to see in just this budget," Haldane, president of YMCA Canada, said in an interview.
He wants to see the government remove the two-per-cent cap on First Nations education increases, provide funding to close the pay gap teachers on First Nations face compared with their provincial colleagues, and invest heavily in early literacy.
Haldane also wants to see accountability measures that would ensure the government funding earmarked for schooling cannot be diverted into any other areas.
"Addressing those issues in this budget would be an important step in the right direction," Haldane said, adding he is concerned because no one at the AFN or in government has formally responded to the task force report yet.
Other quick action could include Ottawa working with the provinces to improve outcomes for the 40 per cent of First Nations students who attend classes in provincially run schools, insiders said.
After the budget, Haldane says, he wants to see Ottawa sit down with First Nations leaders to co-operate on legislation that would reform the governance structure for education and set out a steady income stream.
He also wants Ottawa to set up a national commission of experts that could design a school-board type of system that would support First Nations institutions.
"Our timetable was very aggressive, intentionally so, because we felt the urgency was so great," Haldane said.
The government initially poured cold water on the timelines, saying they were only "aspirational."
First Nations children are Canada's fastest growing demographic, yet less than half of them graduate from high school. Harper has indicated repeatedly that he wants to change those outcomes to lessen First Nations' dependency on the state and to better serve Canada's labour market needs.