04/16/2013 01:09 EDT | Updated 06/16/2013 05:12 EDT

Saskatchewan expands driver education programs to students in reserve schools

REGINA - The Saskatchewan government is giving the green light to driver education programs for students who go to schools on reserves.

Driver training is offered to all provincial school students, but on only three of the 78 reserves in Saskatchewan.

Political and aboriginal leaders have said the lack of access puts aboriginal students at a disadvantage, especially when it comes time to get a job.

"It's important," Education Minister Russ Marchuk said Tuesday.

"Often in urban settings or community settings where access to driver training instruction is easier, students have that access, they get that licence and then to get from one place of employment to another is just facilitated. So it's easier for them to engage, it's easier for them to access those opportunities.

"I see it as very critical. We often assume that students can just do it on their own, but in fact sometimes we need to assist that."

Saskatchewan Government Insurance (SGI) currently funds driver training in provincial schools at a cost of about $6.5 million. About 13,000 students take driver education through provincial schools.

The three reserves that offer driver training now pay for it privately, said Donna Harpauer, minister responsible for SGI.

Expanding the program to reserves is expected to help about 2,600 more First Nations students get access to driver education. It will cost SGI about $1.7 million.

Harpauer says the province hopes to get half of that back from the federal government, which is responsible for education on reserves. However, Harpauer says SGI has not had a positive response so far from the federal government.

She says the province will go "ahead without them."

"There's definitely a jurisdictional issue and we see this as a role for the federal government to play," said Harpauer.

"We have a growing economy. We need to engage in that connection between the student and our economy and this is one way that we can help that and maybe we just have to overlook jurisdiction if need be."

Harpauer also said the program will make a difference for kids on reserve.

"Some bands obviously have stepped up and backfilled or paid for it themselves," she said. "But that is an issue where they're not able to get that training and then therefore can't get their licence as soon. And then they get out of school and they can't immediately engage in a job because they can't get to the job."

The announcement comes after a joint government-aboriginal task force issued a report Monday that said not being able to drive hurts the ability of First Nations and Metis people to get jobs.

The report makes 25 recommendations to improve education and employment outcomes for First Nations and Metis people. One was that the province should fund driver education training for Saskatchewan students attending schools on reserves.

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