01/22/2012 01:32 EST | Updated 03/23/2012 05:12 EDT

Pikangikum, Ontario: First Nations Education Problems Require Creative Solutions

OTTAWA - There's no permanent school in the remote Ojibway community of Pikangikum.

Instead, there's a heap of recommendations that a new school be built; repeated promises for school funding; committees and inquiries into how to build a school; and a shocking tale of youth suicides, solvent abuse, school closures due to mouldy teachers' residences, and reports that the students of Pikangikum are three years behind their non-native peers.

"The consultant has halted work on the school capital planning study due to outstanding arrears associated with a non-related project," states one federal document obtained under the Access to Information Act — a statement that offers only a hint at the complexity of why education in Pikangikum and other native communities is suffering.

There's a strong consensus across the country that improving education is the key to improving the quality of life for First Nations people.

As the prime minister meets with many of the country's chiefs for a critical meeting this Tuesday, education is at the top of everyone's agenda as one of the best solutions to the poverty and dependence that have long plagued First Nations in Canada.

Chiefs and federal politicians are widely expected to endorse a plan that would see Ottawa introduce legislation that would give native communities the power to set up their own school boards, and change the structure of government financing so that it's more predictable.

But the catastrophe that is Pikangikum suggests improving education requires a lot more than new oversight and eventual legislation.

Chief Jonas Strang says he won't be coming to Ottawa for the Crown First Nations gathering, nor has he really had much of a chance to think what he would say if he were here. The day-to-day challenges of his own reserve have consumed him.

"I'm just working on what I'm going through right now," he said in an interview. "I've been busy with our crisis. It's been one thing after another here."

The fly-in northern Ontario community of 2,000 people near the Manitoba border has been hoping for a new school since the last one burned down in 2007.

For now, the students are taking their classes in portables — that is, when the teachers can make it to school and when the kids are healthy and sober enough to attend.

Many of the teachers had to shut their classrooms and leave town for a couple of weeks this month because their residences were infected with mould. In the past, band leaders themselves have threatened to shut down the school in order to make a point.

Nationwide, about half of First Nations students finish high school, a figure that has to change if native communities are to thrive and if Canada is to meet labour demand in the coming decades.

A recent Ontario coroner's report into suicide in Pikangikum put a new school at the top of its list of 100 recommendations, arguing that a formal structure would serve as a hub of the community and help children get engaged in their education.

But construction of a new school in Pikangikum is caught up in a complex history of dysfunction.

The school can't be built until the community completes work to hook into the provincial electricity grid and has enough power to fuel such a project. But work on the grid connection has been on-again, off-again for more than a decade, plagued with cost overruns, funding shortfalls and an unpredictable schedule.

"This project remains critical to support other proposed community projects including: water and sewer servicing, a new school facility, new housing and other community buildings," says a briefing note from January 2011.

Indeed, 421 of the 487 homes in Pikangikum do not have indoor plumbing. Servicing those lots will need extra power too.

Money is in short supply, and the documents say the federal government considers the band to be struggling constantly with a cash flow that could dry up at any time.

The community is also frequently under a boil-water advisory. Their water treatment plant is considered high risk. Despite the operators at the plant having received training, there is a problem with absenteeism, the documents show.

"The First Nation needs to be reminded about the importance of exercising its responsibilities," the documents say repeatedly.

Overall, like on many reserves, the documents stress there is a need to improve administrative capacity — something that comes from better education.

And the vicious circle for Pikangikum is complete.

But it doesn't have to be this way, says aboriginal education guru Roberta Jamieson.

This week's meetings could actually change things for Pikangikum, as long as First Nations leaders and federal politicians remain focused and ready to move beyond grandiose statements to practical implications, she said in an interview.

The meeting should set out a long-term process that deals with outstanding issues on treaties, land claims and the relationship between First Nations and Ottawa, she said.

But in the meantime, the meeting should also ensure immediate attention — and funding — for education. A designated person in the Prime Minister's Office should lead the charge, and then report publicly every year on progress, she said.

Legislation could come eventually, but is not needed to start acting on the repeated recommendations from all corners that First Nations education needs fixing.

"Without changes in educational achievements and outcomes, we will not make progress on any other front," she said.

A flexible approach would recognize that some areas of the country — such as the Mi'kmaq in Nova Scotia and some parts of British Columbia — are having significant success already, while others, like Pikangikum, need more help.