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Fixing Aboriginal Education

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If you were not sure your car could get you to your destination, would your first thought be to change drivers?

Education on-reserve is a vehicle that often fails to reach its goal: graduating students from high school ready for the job market or post-secondary education. The program operates under challenging circumstances and is paid for using an outdated funding formula that leaves it chronically underfunded.

This month, Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt reiterated former minister John Duncan's announcement that the most important element in the plan to reform education on-reserve will be new standards and new structures. In other words, he believes that if you were in a very old car, heading down a bumpy road, unsure of whether you had enough gas, your best bet would be a new driver, armed with a new manual.

The government is also proposing the "principle" of "stable and predictable funding", but makes no promises about the actual funding levels: It has repeatedly refused to work jointly with First Nations to come up with a new funding formula. This is a bit like Mr. Duncan promising to stop by the service station more often, without saying when he will actually top up the gas.

Few Canadians know that since 1996, the federal government has placed a 2% cap on increases to funding for programs and services on-reserve, including education, no matter how fast the population grows or the cost of existing services increases. Since Canada's Aboriginal population is growing at about 1.8% (almost twice as fast as Canada's population as a whole), and prices go up, funding levels have effectively gone down for the past decade and a half.

Currently, the Indian Act does not actually provide for local control of education on-reserve: The legislation still contains the old provisions once used to send children to residential schools, though they are no longer applied. In practice, the federal government usually delegates management to band councils and it uses contribution agreements to set the conditions: The schools must meet provincial standards, even though they do not receive the same level of funding as provincial schools.

The federal government now apparently wants to take responsibility away from band councils and give it either to provincial school boards or to new First Nation Education Authorities, which will function much like provincial school boards.

The proposed legislation would also allow for existing schools on-reserve to become "community-operated schools" - separate, it seems, from the band councils that have run them up till now - but warns that to meet the new standards, schools are likely to need the "better support and more comprehensive access to services" that education authorities or provincial school boards can provide.

The Auditor General has pointed out that elementary and secondary education on-reserve lacks a clearly-defined management framework of the kind that provincial education acts provide. But more importantly, the Auditor General has criticized the federal government because it lacks any strategy for closing the "education gap" between those living on reserves and other Canadians. In 2001, only 41.4% of those aged 15 or older living on-reserve had finished high school, compared to 68.7% of the Canadian population as a whole.

Good governance for education on-reserve is a valuable goal, including a better management framework, but there is no evidence that if either the new First Nation Education Authorities or existing provincial school boards run the schools, they will close the education gap.

According to statistics kept by the Québec government, results in Aboriginal communities in that province are no better for the roughly half of students who attend school boards under provincial jurisdiction, than for the other half who are educated under the authority of their band councils.

In Québec, students normally complete high school at age 16 and three-quarters of students in the province managed to finish by that age in the 1996-1997 to 2001-2002 period. During the same period, however, fewer than 30% of 16-year olds in Québec's Aboriginal communities (Indian reserves, Cree and Naskapi communities, Inuit northern villages) had finished high school.

That is a clear indication of a problem, but the evidence suggests it is not solved simply by using provincial governance structures. Across all the reserves of Québec, where band councils either run the schools or pay for students to attend nearby public or private schools, the proportion of 16-year olds enrolled in their last year of high school in 2001-2002 was 29.1%, or about the same as the provincial average for Aboriginals (29.7%).

Results varied widely in northern Québec, where students attend either the Cree School Board or in the case of the Inuit, the Kativik School Board: These are locally-elected authorities, established under a land claims agreement, but subject to provincial law and receiving joint federal-provincial funding. In 2001-2002, almost 40% of 16-year-olds among the Cree were in the last year of high school, but the figure was less than 20% among the Inuit.

More telling is the fact that the proportion of Aboriginal students still completing the last year of high school at the age of 19 years or older was about the same whether on-reserve or enrolled in the Cree School Board or the Kativik School Board: around 25%. (Among the Québec population as a whole, fewer than 2% of those aged 19 or older were still finishing high school in 2001-2002.)

In Alberta, the Northland School Division No. 61 serves a student population in northern remote communities, almost all of whom are either registered Indians or Metis. It operates with a board elected under provincial rules and is funded by and accountable to the province.

However results were so poor for so long that in 2010, Alberta's education minister suspended the elected board and appointed an official trustee to run the Northland School Division. Only 19.4% of its students had finished grades 10 through 12 within the past three years as of 2009, compared to 70.7% for the province as a whole.

These examples are not meant as a criticism of the school boards, which often operate under challenging circumstances. As a report to the Alberta government on the Northlands School Division explained, it serves about 2,900 students at 23 schools, most of them "small or very small," some as far 700 km away from the central office and two of them only accessible by air for much of the year. The schools also deal with high teacher turnover, poor attendance, and children who speak only Aboriginal languages at home.

The Auditor General found similar challenges facing schools in First Nations communities, most of which are small (fewer than 500 residents) and many of which are remote. In fact, the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development did its own evaluation of elementary and secondary schooling in 2009 and acknowledged that across the country, education scores on reserve decreased the further away students lived from a major service centre and the further north they lived.

First Nations are looking for an educational system adapted to their realities and their culture. Not only do their elected Councils support the idea of regional bodies, they have already created them. In Québec, for instance, the First Nations Education Council provides support for programs and services on reserves across the province. In Nova Scotia, the majority of First Nations reached an agreement with the federal and provincial governments in 1997 to create their own Mi'kmaq Education Authority for on-reserve schools.

Unfortunately, the federal government's new approach seems to be based on the view that band councils are the problem and provincial school boards (or bodies like them) are the solution. But the evidence shows the government will not be able to solve the problems experienced by schools on-reserve simply by handing responsibility for them over to new or different institutions.

The Minister of Aboriginal Affairs is promising "better outcomes for students by creating standards and structures," but the students will remain in the same communities with the same challenges. The road to the better outcomes Mr. Duncan and Mr. Valcourt seek will not get any easier, just because they would like someone else to do the driving.


CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that John Duncan was still the Aboriginal Affairs Minister.

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