Aboriginal students: An education underclass

Often, they receive about a quarter less funding for primary school education than other Canadian children

An education underclass

John Woods/CP

The two schools sit a mere five kilometres apart as the crow flies, in a rural stretch of Manitoba about four hours west of Winnipeg. Their soccer teams compete every spring. Their students groan over many of the same textbooks. But as the road from Rossburn Collegiate to the Waywayseecappo reserve school runs down a hill into a lush valley, it also crosses an invisible jurisdictional line that led to an egregious gap between native and non-native students.

Until about 18 months ago, a student in Waywayseecappo received about $7,300 in annual funding from the federal government, while a student at Rossburn Collegiate received about $10,500 from the provincial government. Then one day the disparity disappeared, poof, overnight.

After three years of talks, Aboriginal leaders in Waywayseecappo persuaded the provincial and federal governments to let them join the local school board, effectively transforming their Aboriginal students into provincial students. Under the agreement, the feds matched the provincial standard dollar for dollar. With 300 students enrolled from kindergarten to Grade 8, that meant an extra $1.2 million for Waywayseecappo’s annual budget. The school immediately hired six more teachers, and the average class size halved from more than 30 to around 17. Previously, an entire wing had sat empty for want of teachers. Now all the classrooms are in use. “We certainly managed before, but it just wasn’t fair,” says Troy Luhowy, the school’s principal, who notes that reading scores have already improved noticeably.

While the transformation of Waywayseecappo has been remarkable, in much of the country Aboriginal students on reserves receive about a quarter less funding for their primary school education than other Canadian children. And while there are some promising signs of change, Ottawa’s plodding pace, not to mention the reluctance of some First Nations communities to yield control of schooling to non-natives, suggests that for the majority of reserve students in Canada, funding equality remains a distant dream.

The Constitution puts the federal government in charge of Aboriginal issues, including education, while provinces handle education for everyone else. This applies even when reserve and provincial schools sit practically side by side, resulting in jurisdictional Swiss cheese. In the 1990s, as the Liberals grappled with Canada’s soaring deficits, they placed a two per cent annual cap on growth in expenditures on Aboriginal education. This was, ironically, a relatively generous allowance in an age of austerity. Soon, however, the feds started handing out six per cent annual increases in spending for social programs—like education—to the provinces.

Over time the two funding curves diverged, at first by a bit, eventually by a lot, with the difference compounding year over year until one day Waywayseecappo and Rossburn Collegiate looked at each other down the road and wondered how things went so wrong.

In principle, Canada’s Parliament believes this is repugnant. In February, MPs unaminously passed a motion, albeit a non-binding one, calling for an end to the funding gap. In this year’s budget, the Harper government committed an average of about $90 million a year over the next three years as part of what Finance Minister Jim Flaherty called “initial steps” to improve Aboriginal education. Yet even that measure falls far short of plugging the gap, say critics. The Assembly of First Nations (AFN) estimates the annual funding hole is about twice as large as the amount Ottawa is coughing up. It’s not just Aboriginal leaders pointing to the continued shortfall either. In April, economist Don Drummond delivered a belt-tightening report for an Ontario government deep in the red. He made 362 recommendations. Only once did he advise more spending, and that was to close the funding gap in Ontario between provincial and reserve schools. Ontario’s department of education estimated this would require a federal injection of $100 million a year for Ontario’s reserve students alone.

Drummond calls the current situation “a classic case of a failure to invest money incurring much bigger costs down the road.” Governments spend disproportionately on struggling Aboriginal adults; it would spend less if Aboriginal youth got a better education in the first place. “I try to be analytical,” Drummond says, “but the only explanation that fits is that we don’t care enough.”

Don Cochrane, chair of the school board that admitted Waywayseecappo into its ranks, was all too aware of the problems posed by struggling Aboriginal students. Since the Waywayseecappo school covered just kindergarten to Grade 8, students would then transfer to a local provincial high school. Many of them had trouble keeping up, and this led to class disruptions. “We were looking for a way to improve the graduation rates and social behaviour of Aboriginal students in our schools,” Cochrane explains. The fate of these schools was bound together whether or not they co-operated.

Waywayseecappo can now access specialists with the school board who help with curriculum and professional development. Waywayseecappo teachers also received raises of between $13,000 and $18,000 a year, bringing them in line with provincial peers who often poached the best reserve teachers.

More than government red tape stood in the way of Waywayseecappo students joining the provincial school board. Chief Murray Clearsky faced local resistance to the idea of ceding any local control to a non-native body. This position isn’t all that surprising, given Canada’s deplorable history of treatment of Aboriginal students at state- and church-run residential schools in the 19th and 20th centuries. Still, Clearsky was able to reach a deal that eased the community’s concerns. The reserve will continue to oversee curriculum and effectively drafts its own budget independently. “I am not giving up much authority for the amount of good education we are getting,” says Clearsky. “With more resources, the kids are already doing better.” He’s also now fielding questions from other reserves hoping to emulate the model.

There is certainly no shortage of cash-strapped reserve schools. In Saskatchewan, Education Minister Russ Marchuk estimates the funding gap there remains as high as 40 per cent per student. “You observe the effects of a lack of resources first-hand—lower graduation rates, lower employment rates, children not school-ready. These are the results of a lack of funding.”

Earlier this year, when Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall was asked whether there was a good reason for a funding disparity, he said, “I haven’t heard one.” NDP MP Charlie Angus goes so far as to say Canada practises a form of “educational apartheid,” and the education system is “based on a system of racist discrimination” in how students are funded. But when it comes to the question of overall Aboriginal funding, most Canadians seem to disagree. A recent poll by Ipsos Reid found that 64 per cent of Canadians think Aboriginals get too much money from taxpayers.

For his part, John Duncan, the minister of Aboriginal affairs and northern development, questions the extent of the funding gap, saying “a lot of numbers are bandied about.” But he also says simply opening the taps wider isn’t the answer if reforms aren’t undertaken at the same time. Only about half of Aboriginal students graduate from high school, and few educators believe improving the performance of Aboriginal students is simply a matter of spending more money. A national panel sponsored by the AFN described the present “non-system” of First Nation schools as suffering from accountability and governance problems. The Conservatives promise funding to those willing to reform. “Where formalized systems are in place to give the student results we want, we will finance any spread in funding,” says Duncan.

To that end, in B.C. earlier this year the federal government committed $15 million to equalize some school funding starting this fall. In exchange, First Nations communities agreed to provide more transparent reporting on student results and school expenditures, as well as participate in more standardized assessments. And while the parties celebrated the agreement as a breakthrough, a Waywayseecappo writ much larger, it also took nearly 20 years of on-again, off-again talks to get to this point, which doesn’t bode well for Aboriginal students in other parts of the country.

The Harper government is now in the curious position of leveraging an inequality it controls to achieve the reforms it wants. In the long term, this approach may lead to more agreements like the one in B.C. But for now, those students who attend chronically underfunded reserve schools might be excused for agreeing with Angus that “some Canadian children have more education rights than others.”




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Aboriginal students: An education underclass

  1. It is a sad fact that far too many Canadians think that First Nations get too much “free money”. What they seem to lack is an understanding that FNs are a part of the Canadian Consitution and as such are entitled to a share of the tax dollars to provide services for their people just like the federal, provincial, and municipal gov’ts.
    Stan Wilson,
    Opaskwayak Cree Nation
    stan.wilson@ualberta.ca

  2. our education its not free, believe me, our ancestors paid a significant price for the little we receive and we contnue to pay with all the social ills..

    • huh?

    • Your education is free and the social ills of which you speak are created by your own people. Stop sniveling and whining and change your own destiny katy lire.every other canadian. I went to school to learn I never missed that was the expectation of my parents do that I could have a better life. Start holding your own children to those same standards and their lives would improve. The only failure here is on native parents and their attitudes of entitlement.

      • Gargramel, you talk about the expectation of attending school. It’s unfortunate however that you didn’t take the time to learn anything about the land you stand on. Let me help you out. Number 1, Education is not free, I dare you to find documentation that states otherwise; 2. You speak of holding our children to the same standards of attending school. I take it you actually have a school near by. Many of our communities, those communities who are struggling most don’t have a school within 1000 km. Seeing as you have all the answers, perhaps you have a simply solution to curing the colonialism in the place you call your country. You are the one with all the uneducated, bias opinions, you think the people living living in 4th world living conditions are the ones who have attitudes of entitlement. I actually feel sorry for you.

  3. “The Conservatives promise funding to those willing to reform. “Where formalized systems are in place to give the student results we want, we will finance any spread in funding,” says Duncan.”

    I think that’s the wrong approach. The funding gap should be closed regardless of reform. Reform is, I agree, absolutely essential, but tying reform to funding is effectively treating First Nations like NGOs, and it belittles them to do so. These communities should not be treated like contractors. If we want aboriginal communities to come on board and accept the provinces’ expertise in education, then we need to treat them like autonomous partners that we respect. A two-pronged approach with no conditions on funding.

    • Why should we dump more of our hard earned tax dollars into a system that, durant work? The conservatives are correct reform first then funds. Natives are creating the two tiered system themselves by not being accountable for existing funding and education levels. It is time natives joined this century the treasures should be abolished and natives join modern society and schools with extra teachers to teach language and culture. If they started contributing to the tax base and stopped creating an aparthied society their quality of living and their childrens lives would increase dramatically. Until they realize they have a part in their decline things will never change. The majority of Canadians do not support the treaties as the ancestors of this country did not have the right to sell all of us into financial slavery in perpetuity. There needs to be a new agreement of what is acceptable and what us not to the benefit of all Canadians native or non native we are all Canadians and should be treated equally with No special privileges for any one group.

      • Hahaha! Obviously it “durant” work publicly either. And how do you expect the education levels to be equal when there is no equity? It’s not equal the way it stands now financially. Did you not just read the article?

  4. Why no mention of the Kelowna accord in this article that included these reforms that were then ignored when Regressive Conservatives came to power? You’re giving the government credit for a program that they failed to implement when given the opportunity, only to recycle and re-brand it as their own…

    I know Maclean’s has moved away from a centrist news organization to a conservative news organization but to leave out such important detail makes one question the journalistic integrity of both the author and the editors.

    • This article doesn’t have a Conservative slant at all! I thought it was very well balanced.

  5. it certainly is a crime and a shame that apartheid exists in this glorious country others hold in such high esteem.. Open your eyes to the aftermath of colonization and the devastating effects that are long lasting and ever reaching. Happy these children have a fighting chance to get the education their ancestors were promised in exchange for the theft of the culture and the land. Hopefully the rest of the First Nations will have the fortitude, energy and the resources, to become the next squeaky wheel in the vast land of broken wheels! Stand up for your Rights! Don’t Give Up the Fight!

  6. I think that it is sad that first nation students don’t get as much funding as us i i think that this needs to change

    • They’d get MORE funding if they produced more graduates. When hockey and playing videos games is more a priority over learning how to read, and the government sees that, you aren’t going to be getting more funding over a public school.

      • Jimmy, with a flawed system that brings
        on a sense of inferiority and incompetence, where every Aboriginal child and
        adult are affected and therefore feel that they themselves are bound to fail,
        and therefore do not try, it doesn’t help that the funding is unsubstantial. This is the Indian problem; the disenfranchise that
        Canada needs to rid itself of before it can advance as a nation and not have
        more than one disgrace on the international level.

  7. Funding is not the answer and a closer look at schools in the United States proves this. New Jersey has had some of the highest student funding yet student performance continues to occupy the basement in the U.S.
    Also mentioning teacher salaries without considering tax deductions for status employees that work on reserve is a serious flaw in this article.
    Consider this as well many, MANY, students from reserve schools are provided with transportation to public schools because concerned parents do not support the management practices of band council run schools.
    Finally, in education, boards, administration, teachers and students have now added the word ACCOUNTABLITY to their vocabulary. We must justify our spending practices and prove, with data, that programs produce results and that students graduate.
    In order for aboriginal education and graduation rates to rise far deeper questions need to be asked and answered about a system that simple perpetuates a flawed model and poverty.

  8. It’s hard for the government to want to give money to an education system that produces too few graduates. Using the “we hate education because of the Residential School System” is just another crutch.

  9. I know a man who works at a Native School which is incredibly well funded by the province. It is in fact more well funded than some of the public schools down south in Ontario. The teachers are top notch. Every classroom is getting a SmartBoard. The kids just don’t care to learn. On any given day, in a class of 20 students, there will only be 12 students. Often, parents let their kids sleep in during the morning and the kids show up in the afternoon. Behavior problems abound. My friend is sick of all the blaming that goes on in the community in regards to what happened in the past. He thinks it’s just giving parents an excuse to not assist in their child’s education. There is a misperception that the children up here are disadvantaged for whatever reason. But they are not poor. Many have Ipods and Smartphones. Learning to read and write is just not important priority up here. At least not compared to playing hockey.

    • i totally agree with your observations Jimmy, I taught on a reserve and found all the same behaviours….beautiful building, smartboards, new library and brand new books, amazing equipment, energetic young teachers who cared, yet the kids slept in and many of the students did not bother to come to school, or slept on the floor or desks because they were up late playing xbox or facebook etc… they all have computers and internet, smartphones at home, and are really bright… some have better standards of living than others… they got free breakfast, lunch and snack everyday… but they didn’t treat things with respect and often didn’t listen to the teachers.. I have never heard so much yelling by teachers because the kids didn’t want to show respect or follow directions… also there were tons of money spent on prizes to give kids who came to school during the attendance weeks that determined government funding, and free big-screen tvs and xboxes and computers given away to families just for technically coming to school, even if they were “on the land,” which I respect as a tradition, but perhaps was really just a trip into town to get groceries or a sleep in day…. more experienced teachers were looked at with suspicious eyes, because the community members couldn’t understand why an experienced teacher would want to teach up north.. often such teachers were described as “damaged goods, not good enough to teach down south”… very insulting attitude to keep when experienced teachers have a lot to share and know best practice and standards…. having all new teachers running a school, having no experience, is not a good environment for the kids or those teachers…. high turnover due to ineffective managers and administrative practices, plus lack of union protection for teachers in vulnerable locations, often very young women and men on there own with no knowledge of workplace laws and rights…. just so many reasons why reserve schools are not doing well…. not just because of lack of money…

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