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Feds announce $1.9 billion for First Nations education

Friday February 28, 2014
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Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced the federal government would invest $1.9 billion in First Nations education beginning in 2015 but First Nations leaders in Ontario are not impressed.

First Nations leaders have expressed caution or disappointment after the Canadian government announced it would invest $1.9 billion into First Nations education over three years.

On Feb. 7, Prime Minister Stephen Harper made the announcement to reform the First Nations K-12 education system through the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act. It was previously known as the First Nations Education Act, which many First Nations leaders rejected as it did not address funding disparities between First Nations and provincially-run schools.

The new legislation will be tabled in Parliament in the coming months though no draft of the new act has been released.

Harper made the announcement at the Kainai High School on the Blood Tribe reserve in Alberta along with Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo and Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt.

The renamed and updated bill was unveiled as part of an agreement between the AFN and the federal government. The agreement includes promises from the federal government to invest $160 million over four years, beginning in 2015, to fund implementation of the new legislation. Ottawa has also agreed to invest $500 million over seven years beginning in 2015 for infrastructure. The federal government will also put $1.252 billion over three years, beginning in 2016, toward core funding for education. The government will also eliminate the two per cent cap and replace it with a 4.5 per cent cap.

The renamed bill still carries some of the main aims of its previous incarnation including the creation of minimum education standards consistent with provincial standards, establishing roles for First Nation education administrators require annual reporting and allow for the creation of First Nation education authorities.

First Nations leaders expressed either caution, disappointment or outright rejection of the new legislation and funding agreement.

NAN Grand Chief Harvey Yesno, who was in Alberta for the announcement, said he was “disappointed.”

“The severe underfunding of our education system is the single greatest impediment to the educational success in NAN First Nations, and the only way to remedy this is an immediate and substantial investment in schools and education programing across NAN territory,” Yesno said in a media release, adding that his presence during the announcement does not indicate his approval for the new act.

Of particular concern to NAN is that the funding does not take effect this fiscal year and that the $500 million (over seven years) for education infrastructure spread across all First Nations across Canada does not meet the current 12-year backlog in school construction in NAN alone.

Ontario Regional Chief Stan Beardy said he is cautious in his approach towards the new act, noting that “it is unclear how this agreement came about and how the joint work will be accomplished.”

The proposed capital funding investment of $500 million over seven years would not even meet the needs of First Nations in Ontario, Beardy said, let alone all of the First Nations within Canada. An analysis in 2012 revealed that it would take $242 to $354 million to bring schools in First Nation communities up to provincial standards.

“In announcing ‘a new approach,’ the Harper government continues to cut and exert restrictive guidelines on all funding including education funding for our representative organizations,” Beardy said. “For too long our children have been underfunded and denied opportunity and fairness.”

Anishinabek Nation Grand Council Chief Patrick Wedaseh Madahbee said due to the the “lack of honesty and cooperation” of the Canadian government with First Nations, “we have no reason to accept (the) announcement on face value.”

“Therefore, my recommendation is that we continue on course of fighting legislation and/or policies that impede our progress on real (First Nations) control over (First Nations) education,” Madahbee said in an open letter. “We remain focused on protecting our children’s inherent rights to fair and equitable education.”

Analyzing the numbers

Commentators have taken to analyzing the figures made available in the announcement, including those in the legal field.

Judith Rae, an associate with the Olthuis Kleer Townshend (OKT) law firm based in Toronto, wrote that the $1.9 billion figure sounds impressive, but “there is less money than it seems.”
OKT has represented NAN and a number of the tribal councils and First Nations within NAN territory on a variety of different files

“The new education legislation will require First Nations to take on massive new responsibilities,” Rae wrote in her blog on OKT’s website in an entry titled “Behind the Numbers: Harper’s New Funding of the First Nations Education Act.”

“But the resources to meet those responsibilities are insufficient.”

The announcement called for $500 million for school infrastructure over a seven-year period beginning in 2015-2016.

Canada says that its education infrastructure spending is about $200 million per year, which includes capital construction, and operation and maintenance for school buildings. Adding $71.4 million ($500 million spread over seven years) per year would make the total about $271.4 million per year.

In terms of what is needed, the Parliamentary Budget Office ran some models using fiscally conservative assumptions and found that First Nations’ existing schools needed $287-308 million per year in capital construction spending, plus another $110 million for operations and maintenance – i.e. about $410 million a year as of 2009-10. This figure does not take into account funds for new schools.

The $271.4 million per year is a long way off from $410 million, plus inflation since the PBO estimate, plus catch-up costs (from deterioration since the PBO estimate), plus room for new schools.

“So it looks like while things will improve a bit, we’re still far from where we need to be,” Rae wrote.

Rae also addressed the two per cent cap on annual increases for First Nations education funding, which was in place for 20 years. The announcement called for the cap to be replaced with a 4.5 per cent “escalator,” which is intended to keep pace with population growth.

The First Nations population is the fastest growing in Canada. Add inflation, and an AFN report found that at least 6.3 per cent per year is required to keep pace with these unavoidable realities, Rae wrote.

“If 4.5 per cent operates as a new cap, it could still be some distance behind the real life growth of 6.3 per cent (or more),” Rae wrote. “That means funding levels would continue to fall farther and farther behind over time.”

Rae’s blog also touched on the $1.25 billion in core funding for K-12 over three years and the implementation funding which is $160 million over four years, which also show funding is still not adequate.

“More funding is good, but it needs to be put into perspective,” Rae concluded.

Rae’s analysis can be found at:

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