The next federal government must increase education funding for aboriginal students to help keep them out of jails, hospitals and street gangs, Manitoba’s aboriginal affairs minister said Wednesday. Oscar Lathlin, who made the remarks as protesters demonstrated on the steps of the legislature, said money to help natives pay for tuition and living expenses has only increased marginally each year and hasn’t kept pace with inflation.
The aboriginal population is booming but the federal government hasn’t made it possible for more aboriginals to get a post-secondary education, he said.
“We’re dealing with a group of people who are so far behind in terms of development as compared to the rest of society,” Lathlin said in an interview. “We’re behind in everything … We must improve educational outcomes for aboriginal people.”
Lathlin, himself a former chief, said aboriginal leaders are still fighting the same battles he had with the federal government years ago. It makes good economic sense for the federal government to boost aboriginal student aid rather than cap increases at two per cent annually, he said.
“A good education policy is a good economic development strategy. If we as Indians become well-educated, we’re going to stay out of jails. We’ll stay out of hospitals because an educated family tends to be healthy because they eat the right foods. We’d have well-paying jobs and people would have good lives. Our kids would end up not having to join gangs.”
Grand Chief Morris Shannacappo of Manitoba’s Southern Chiefs Organization said hardly a week goes by when there isn’t talk about increasing crime and overcrowded jails. But Shannacappo said that is a direct result of poor federal funding.
“Governments can make a choice,” said Shannacappo, whose organization spearheaded the protest of about 50 people to demand better education funding.
“They can fund education properly or they can deal with the consequences later. If you take away people’s chances to pursue a better life, to achieve their dreams, if you leave them with bleak prospects, then these are the consequences.”
Natives have to more aggressively push governments to honour their commitments and the chiefs organization will continue using the federal election to press for better funding, Shannacappo added.
“We are not going away.”
Kali Storm, with the aboriginal student centre at the University of Manitoba, said she’s been waiting years for better federal funding. It’s been over a decade since the government capped increases at about two per cent, she said.
That leaves students with around $700 to live on every month, she said. They are forced to rely on food banks and many can’t even afford bus fare to get to class.
“You’re talking some very basic, basic things,” Storm said. “That’s happening much, much more often.”
The party that forms government after the Oct. 14 election must make long-term investments that will help lift aboriginals out of poverty, she suggested.
“We need someone with a really strong vision.”