10/02/2012 11:30 EDT | Updated 12/02/2012 05:12 EST

Ottawa calculations suggest First Nations schools are not underfunded

OTTAWA - Aboriginal Affairs is fighting back against its critics, releasing new calculations that show native students receive just as much, if not more, funding as non-aboriginals for schooling.

The federal government has long been under fire from aboriginal and human rights groups and opposition critics for underfunding First Nations education.

Last year, all parties agreed to fix the problem and committed to ending inequalities between native and non-native primary and secondary school systems.

But in a backgrounder attached to a Tuesday announcement on building new schools, government officials attached a raft of calculations that suggest student funding is already at par.

"All we're saying is, we don't know whether we're spending more or less, but it's roughly equivalent," Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan said in an interview.

"It's not the money that's going to move us to where we need to get to. It's the legislation and the supports and services and everything else, that's going to get us to where we need to go."

Aboriginal Affairs says it spent an average of $13,542 for each student in the 2010-2011 school year — not including money for infrastructure and building maintenance.

The amounts vary by province. First Nations kids in the Atlantic provinces get $14,505 apiece, while Saskatchewan students get $12,159, the government research says.

That compares to a national per-student average of $10,439 in 2009, according to Statistics Canada.

But this contradicts data from the Assembly of First Nations that shows First Nations receive about $7,101 for each student, on average.

The AFN figures that the funding shortfall was $747 million in 2010-2011, for a cumulative shortfall of $3 billion since increases in funding were capped in 1996.

And the NDP says the federal math is faulty, since it lumps in students who go to school on reserves with students who attend provincial schools.

"I’m disappointed that the government tries to hide behind misleading facts when it comes to providing adequate funding for these kids," said aboriginal affairs critic Jean Crowder. "First Nation schools on-reserve do not receive the same funding as school off-reserve.

"Equal funding should be the start of that process, but instead we have a minister who seems intent on blaming kids by saying they already get enough funding and shouldn’t be asking for any more."

Duncan says he has discussed the issue extensively with chiefs across the country and they realize that in order to improve dismal graduation rates, reform needs to go well beyond money.

"They understand we're not going to go out and build Taj Mahal schools," he said. "It's what goes on inside the schools that's more important."

The national chief, however, says it's a matter of both money and reform — not one or the other.

"Government unilateralism and funding on government-limited terms is always going to fail, and we have rejected that approach," Shawn Atleo told an angry audience at a First Nations education conference on Tuesday.

The federal government and the Assembly of First Nations have both made education a top priority, working together until now to strike a plan for better funding and new governance.

The federal budget included $275 million for school infrastructure, early literacy and governance — first steps in a plan that would eventually lead to legislation that gives First Nations more control over delivering education.

The budget funds are on top of $1.7 billion spent annually on First Nations elementary and secondary education and schools.

Duncan said Tuesday that part of that new money will go towards building three new schools on reserves this year and renovating five others in the future.

The new schools are to be built in the some of the country's neediest communities, in Pikangikum and Fort Severn in Northern Ontario, as well as Shamattawa in Manitoba.

A coroner's report into youth suicide in Pikangikum highlighted the lack of a proper school as one of the key weaknesses in that community. And many communities complain that their schools are falling apart, mouldy, poorly equipped and understaffed.

Part of the new funding will go towards "bundling" together the construction work in the hopes of achieving some economies of scale, Duncan said.

And another part of the money will go to proposals that help native bands build the expertise they need to eventually take control of their education systems.

But Atleo says the funding is inadequate, and is simply a re-announcement timed to interfere with the AFN conference.

"This is our reality," he said bitterly. "Governments, as expressed in this press release today, are not going to provide the answer."

The government has committed to passing legislation by 2014 that would revamp the First Nations education system and set up school-board-like arrangements that would give First Nations regions more control over curriculum and schooling in general.