Hundreds gather on Parliament Hill to raise concerns over education issues
Constance Lake Chief Arthur Moore called for increased access to education for First Nations during the First Nations Education Rally on Parliament Hill in Ottawa Sept. 23.
While the population continues to grow rapidly in Matawa First Nation communities, Matawa said in press release there has yet to be a corresponding increase in Matawa post-secondary students.
“This country’s workforce and leaders of tomorrow are growing up today and it is a national tragedy that so many of our young people are not getting the education or academic experience they rightfully deserve and need to succeed in a modern and increasingly demanding world,” Moore said Sept. 23 to about 500 people who gathered at the rally.
Moore was joined by First Nations leaders, Elders, citizens, youth, students and federal politicians during the rally to support fairness and opportunity for First Nations children and youth.
“We have gathered to unite our voices as one and to call on the government of Canada to provide First Nations with a guarantee that ensures First Nations students can have a quality, culturally relevant education from early childhood to post-secondary,” said National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo of the Assembly of First Nations. “Our call is above all about fairness. First Nation education funding is the only education funding that has been capped arbitrarily at two per cent annually since 1996.”
Thunder Bay-Superior North MP Bruce Hyer called on the federal government to reverse chronic under-funding for First Nations education.
“The federal government has treaty obligations that they are not respecting,” Hyer said. “They have the responsibility for supporting First Nations education. But a two per cent funding cap, in place even while our Aboriginal youth population grows rapidly, has resulted in a severe under-funding for First Nations education. Now Indian and Northern Affairs Canada is reviewing the administration of the Post Secondary Student Support Program (PSSSP) without any meaningful involvement of the First Nations which it serves. The government has to open up the process, start listening to the people that matter, and take action.”
Ontario Regional Chief Angus Toulouse said during a radio interview the First Nations Education Rally was organized due to INAC’s review of the PSSSP.
“We are uncomfortable with the policy options that they are considering,” Toulouse said. “It’s like a loan-based program, is what they are suggesting.”
Toulouse raised concerns about First Nations not being included in the discussions.
“We must be involved in discussions which look at building on the strengths of the current program in a way that fits the realities and needs of our children,” Toulouse said.
He also discussed the net results of the two per cent cap as First Nation communities continue to grow at far more than a two per cent rate.
“The result of the cap is that every dollar of spending power that the First Nations had since the cap was put in place has been reduced to just 23 cents,” Toulouse said.
Toulouse said a total of 10,589 students were denied access to the funding during the years 2001 to 2006, according to Chiefs of Ontario data.
“In 2007 to 2008, an additional 2,858 students were also denied access to the Post Secondary School Support Program, again due to the two per cent cap and also with more being denied every subsequent year that the cap has been put in place,” Toulouse said.
New Democrat Aboriginal Affairs Critic Jean Crowder raised the issue of fair funding for schools in First Nations communities in the House of Commons.
“On-reserve schools are making do with up to one-third less funding than provincial schools,” Crowder said. “The result is a crisis, including a dropout rate three times higher than average. The education gap is not only stunting economic opportunities for these children, but harming their communities as well. Why does the government have billions for corporate tax cuts, but little or nothing for First Nations children?”
Atleo said First Nation schools receive no resources for computers, software, libraries, language immersion or support systems.
“We are calling for resources that address this chronic under-funding and we want to work with the government to create a better system that enables success for our students, a system that is supported, integrated and sustainable,” Atleo said. “This is in the interests of all Canadians. Closing the achievement gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people will add $179 billion to Canada’s GDP (gross domestic product) by 2026.”
The AFN said in a Sept. 23 press release the Auditor General of Canada has repeatedly urged the federal government to work collaboratively with First Nations to address education needs and the Parliamentary budget officer has noted the lack of a sound and consistent policy approach by the federal government on First Nation education and infrastructure.
“This National Week of Action on Education is driven by First Nations citizens who want to show support for our youth and share our current reality with all Canadians,” Atleo said. “First Nations have set out achievable plans for progress that will ultimately benefit all Canadians. It’s time for our historic partner, the Government of Canada, to work with us to bring about real, positive change. We cannot and will not wait while the future of our children, communities and nations hangs in the balance. When we all work together, everyone wins.”
Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg Chief Gilbert Whiteduck and a group of First Nations citizens and supporters walked more than 135 kilometres from his community, which is located near Maniwaki, Que., to show their support for better First Nations education.
“It’s shameful that the youngest and fastest growing segment of Canada’s population receive a much lower standard of education than others,” Hyer said. “Our First Nations youth will play an increasingly important role in the economy of their communities and the country, but we’re not giving them the best preparation to reach their full potential.”
The rally also included participation by the Canadian Federation of Students, Public Service Alliance of Canada and the Canadian Union of Public Employees.
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