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Shockingly Low Literacy Rates Prove First Nations Kids Are Being Left Behind

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A grade school teacher contacted me the other day with a request for help. She was asking for pencils, one-inch binders and papers for her class. "We have such smart young people here," she wrote, "they just need the resources to succeed."

Her school was a cluster of dilapidated portables in the isolated community of Kashechewan First Nation on James Bay. I represent this community and have met many times with the children who wear their winter coats in class during the freezing winter months. As a former provincial school trustee I know that there is no non-Aboriginal school in the country that faces anything close to these substandard conditions.

And so what are the results of educating children in a system that has been systematically underfunded for decades?

Well, the results came in last week from the department of Aboriginal Affairs. Buried in a department performance report, we learned the shocking news of the failures of literacy and numeracy in First Nation schools. In the Ontario region, students who participated in provincial standardized testing in 2013-2014 ended up with an average literacy score of 21 per cent for boys and 32 per cent for girls. The numeracy rate was a mere 18 per cent for boys and 20 per cent for girls.

The Waterloo Board boasts an average 85 per cent success rate for standardized testing while us Ontario First Nation students under the AANDC system are facing an 80 per cent failure rate. I have tried to find any comparable rankings for literacy or numeracy scores anywhere else that are this low. In terms of overall literacy, these numbers place Ontario First Nation students behind 205 other countries -- at levels slightly higher than Sub-Saharan Africa.

I know there are difficulties in making literacy comparisons across the numerous jurisdictions in the world. However, if such appalling numbers were released in any provincial school board, there would be editorials, outrage and well-deserved firing of those in charge of the education department. Unfortunately in the world of Aboriginal Affairs, this is just another day at the office. They even had the gall to present the numbers under the claim that it was part of the First Nations Student "Success Program."

No surprise then, that the Conservative government has announced that it is postponing a planned internal audit into "Elementary and Secondary Schools" on reserve. After all, why would they want to see the results of what happens when our government deliberately underfunds libraries, sciences, computer program and special education as compared to provincial school levels? But parents on reserve know the results.

In drilling down deeper into the AANDC report it was also reported that of the 300-million dollars allotted to be spent on First Nations education infrastructure the department sat on $86 million. This deliberate funding of an already underfunded system, creates the kind of infrastructural crisis we see on too many reserves. Such negligence would be unimaginable in a provincial school.

On February 2012, the Parliament of Canada unanimously stood and voted for Shannen's Dream -- a commitment to ensure equitable funding for all First Nation students. The motion was named for the late Cree youth activist Shannen Koostachin who declared that every First Nation child should have the right to a "comfy" school that makes them proud to learn.

This government has yet to act on this commitment. And so we continue to see students falling behind and giving up. They aren't the failures. The failure lies with the policies of this federal government. Unless we are willing to break this cycle of underfunding and negligence, the question will need to be asked -- who will stand up to apologize to this generation of children who are being deliberately left behind?