02/16/2012 05:36 EST | Updated 04/17/2012 05:12 EDT

Harper government hints budget to include more money for aboriginal education

OTTAWA - The Harper government is signalling its intention to pour more money into aboriginal education, even as it prepares to slash spending on almost everything else.

The governing Conservatives have thrown their support behind an NDP motion calling on the government to provide the necessary funding to ensure First Nations children receive an education of equal quality to that received by kids in provincial school systems.

Moreover, the NDP says Finance Minister Jim Flaherty has indicated a personal interest in the issue during private pre-budget consultations.

The NDP motion does not include a specific price tag but it calls on the government to commit to provide "the necessary financial and policy supports" for aboriginal school systems.

It also calls on the government to provide "funding that will put reserve schools on par with non-reserve provincial schools."

The federal government currently spends $1.4 billion annually on aboriginal education; the Assembly of First Nations has calculated that an additional $500 million a year is needed.

Conservative MP Greg Rickford, parliamentary secretary to Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan, indicated the government's support for the NDP motion during debate Thursday.

"I not only thank (the NDP member) for having presented this motion but I inform him also of my support," Rickford told the House of Commons.

"The children of First Nations must have access to the same opportunities as children who live off reserve. ... The stakes are too high for us not to make First Nation education a priority. In fact, the stakes could not be any higher."

The motion is to be put to a vote on Feb. 27.

As the motion was being debated Thursday in the Commons, NDP finance critic Peter Julian was meeting with Flaherty to lay out the official Opposition's budget priorities. Julian said later they had "a good discussion" about the need for more funding for aboriginal education.

"(Flaherty) agrees that it's important, that's fair to say," Julian said.

The signals of more money for aboriginal education come as Flaherty is preparing to deliver what's expected to be a painful, cost-slashing budget next month. Government departments and agencies have been ordered to cut spending by up to 10 per cent, for savings of up to $8 billion annually.

The Conservatives have made it clear they see education as the key to prosperity and independence for First Nations communities. They have yet to back up their conviction with additional funding but senior officials have let it be known they're open to an increase of some kind.

Aboriginal leaders have long complained that funding for education on reserves is capped at a two per cent annual increase, even as costs for teachers are soaring and many schools are doing without basic resources such as libraries and gyms.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's summit last month with aboriginal leaders concluded with many good intentions but no concrete promises for improving conditions on reserves. Aboriginal leaders have pointed to the coming budget as the place where Harper will have to prove his good will was more than just talk.

Last year, the federal government and Assembly of First Nations set up a joint task force on education. Its report, published earlier this month, recommended adequate funding for native schools but also suggested setting up an education commission to oversee reform and legislation to create school boards for aboriginal school systems.

The Tories want to see the structural changes before they commit major new money. That could mean Flaherty will provide seed money in the budget to kick start changes, rather than a wholesale increase in aboriginal education funding.