Debates of the Senate  
2nd Session, 41st Parliament, Volume 149, Issue 25
  Tuesday, December 10, 2013
Speech: Inquiry on Disparities in First Nations Education

    Hon. Lillian Eva Dyck rose pursuant to notice of November 26, 2013:

    That she will call the attention of the Senate to the disparities in educational attainments of First Nations people, inequitable funding of on-reserve schools and insufficient funding for postsecondary education.

    She said: Honourable senators, I will begin my speech on my inquiry into the inequitable funding and gaps in First Nation education levels by providing some context to the current situation.

    How did we arrive at this critical juncture when just today Minister Valcourt is promising new funding for band-operated schools if the chiefs agree to the provisions in the proposed First Nations education act; when today on the Hill and just last week, First Nations held protests over the proposed First Nations education act; when just two weeks ago, National Chief Atleo rejected the proposed First Nations education act as inadequate and unacceptable, stipulating, amongst other things, that there must be a guarantee of adequate funding; and when the AFN's Special Chiefs Assembly will be discussing First Nations education tomorrow across the river in Gatineau?

    First, there have been strong objections from the Assembly of First Nations, regional First Nation organizations and the National Aboriginal Youth Council to the draft First Nations education act because of the lack of real consultation and because of the notable absence of any funding to close the funding gap between on-reserve band-operated schools and provincial schools. The list of those First Nations who object include the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, the Chiefs of Ontario, the Association of Iroquois and Allied Indians, the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, the London District Chiefs Council, the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake, the Prince Albert Grand Council and the Assembly of the First Nations of Quebec and Labrador, to name a few.

    Second, there have been numerous reports, including one from the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples, recommending major policy changes and increased funding for First Nations K to 12 education. Even Aboriginal Affairs itself has completed two in-depth studies in the last two years in which they conclude that underfunding of First Nations elementary and secondary education is a critical issue that must be remedied.

    This is why the minister's position not to include provisions in the proposed First Nations education act to provide equitable funding for K to 12 education is incomprehensible. His position on funding makes no sense based on the overwhelming evidence of underfunding.

    Furthermore, as I will explain later, the financial payoffs for investing in First Nations education are substantial for the individual, the band and Canada as a whole. The issues that I will discuss today will be: underfunding; the low rate of high school graduation rates for First Nations students; the economic benefits of closing that gap; recommendations to enhance funding for First Nations K to 12 education; and suggestions on how to break free from the current impasse by collective, non-partisan action of all of us together in this chamber as an independent chamber of Parliament.

    With respect to underfunding of K to 12 First Nations education, there are numerous reports on First Nations education and the underfunding of band-operated schools compared to their provincial counterparts. First of all, I'll talk about our Senate report tabled in December 2011 two years ago. We, the Senate, adopted our Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples' report on reforming First Nations education in the K to12 school system.

    I will focus on our recommendation that a comprehensive formula be included in a First Nations education act that would eliminate the funding inequities between band-operated schools and provincial schools. This comprehensive formula would be similar to that enjoyed by provincial schools and would enable individual First Nations to apply for federal funding for such things as computer labs, libraries, First Nations language instruction and First Nations content.

    In other words, we recommended a new, modernized method of funding that would enable band-operated schools to achieve an educational system that is equivalent to comparable schools located off reserve. We specified that the funding methodology should be developed in close consultation with First Nations so that the formula would be tailored to their specific needs.

    Let me quote from our report:

    Based on the evidence placed before us, we believe that a new funding formula, negotiated by the parties and based on real cost drivers, must be developed to replace the current system of contribution agreements.

    In addition to our Senate report, there is a wealth of other reports demonstrating that K to12 education on reserve is underfunded compared to provincial schools. Despite this, the previous Minister of Aboriginal Affairs steadfastly claimed that on-reserve K to 12 students are funded at levels comparable to provincial students. Minister Valcourt has inherited this fairy tale and has yet to refute it, even though it contradicts what his own department states in their recent reports from June 2011 and June 2012. They stated:

    It was noted repeatedly that the two percent cap on First Nations spending means that while costs inflate, resources do not keep pace with needs relative to non-First Nations schools.

    In other words, honourable senators, the department knows full well that band-operated schools are underfunded because of the 2 per cent cap.

    Honourable senators, it's crystal clear that a key factor in the genesis of the funding gap for First Nations education was the imposition in 1996 of a 2 per cent cap on the annual funding increases to First Nations education. Other federal departments have had that cap lifted and topped up to compensate for lost funding. However, Aboriginal Affairs still has a 2 per cent cap on First Nations funding.

    In other words, although federal funding for provincial education has had the 2 per cent cap removed and topped up, funding for band-operated schools is still capped. Consequently, funding for First Nations education on reserve has been less than provincial levels for 17 years since 1996.

    To make matters even worse, First Nations population is increasing in numbers more so than other Canadians. From 1996 to 2006, First Nations population increased by 45 per cent, while the increase was 8.4 per cent for other Canadians. First Nations population has dramatically increased, and about 50 per cent are under the age of 25.

    This situation is like a triple whammy with respect to First Nations K to12 education funding. First, there's a 2 per cent cap. Second, there's been no equalization compensation. Third, bands are faced with increasing numbers of school-aged children.

    In January 2012, the report of the joint Government of Canada and AFN national panel on K to12 First Nations education also noticed the gap in funding. Here's a quote:

    ... it is clear that new funding will be required. A new funding formula that is needs-based and ensures stable, predictable and sustainable funding that is sufficient to produce desired outcomes will be required.

    In March 2013, the results of a joint study conducted by the Government of Saskatchewan and the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations was released. Their report stated:

    It is clear from the numbers that First Nation schools are funded at a significantly lower level in: basic instruction, special education, operation and maintenance and student resources.

    They had access to the actual funding dollars for several provincial schools and several on-reserve schools and thus were able to do a direct comparison. The worst example was that band- operated schools received $41 per student for instructional resources, while provincial schools received $689 per student. As the report states:

    There is little doubt that First Nation schools continue to be under-funded in comparison to their provincial counterparts.

    In trying to comprehend the government's reluctance to commit additional dollars to First Nations education, I conjectured that perhaps the rapid growth of First Nations population might lead to a large increase in the number of First Nations youth who are school-aged and would require a massive increase in educational funding. However, this is not the case. In the department's own estimates from June 2012, the number of First Nations persons 18 and under nationwide now is about 175,000 and is projected to be about 200,000 in 2026. This does not seem to me to be a huge increase, which would result in huge funding commitme

    Even if large sums of money were required to equalize the funding of First Nation education, the federal government has a constitutional obligation to honour the treaty right to education and a statutory obligation under the Indian Act. The longer we delay, the more it will cost.

    Honourable senators, it is incomprehensible as to why and reprehensible that First Nation education continues to be underfunded. It is clear that, compared to provincial K to 12 schools, band-operated schools are underfunded. In the next few minutes, I will review the evidence that First Nation students are continuing to fall behind other Canadians with respect to high school graduation rates. Closing the education gap is not just a moral issue; it is becoming increasingly clear that there are considerable economic payoffs for investing in closing the gap and improving the education of Aboriginals.

    Honourable senators, it could be argued that inadequate funding has contributed to the poor educational attainment of First Nation students. Certainly, the existence of educational gaps strengthens the argument that funding disparities between on- reserve and provincial schools must be remedied.

    Honourable senators, one of the first areas that I researched as a senator was a comparison of the levels of education in the Aboriginal population to those of other Canadians. Using the 2006 Statistics Canada data, I calculated the percentage of these populations with various levels of education for Canada as a whole and for Saskatchewan in particular.

    For example, 34 per cent of Aboriginals in the age group 25 to 64 did not have a high school diploma. This is twice the rate for other Canadians, where 15 per cent of Canadians aged 25 to 64 did not have a high school diploma. This difference is even more pronounced in Saskatchewan, where 49 per cent of Aboriginals of that age group did not have a high school diploma, compared to just 19 per cent of other Saskatchewaners.

    Over the last two years, there have been many such statistical studies, all substantiating the smaller percentage of First Nations students who graduate from high school and who obtain degrees. It should be noted, however, that Aboriginals graduate from trade schools at about the same rate as other Canadians.

    Data from the department itself, presented in their June 2011 report, clearly showed that on-reserve Aboriginals not only had the lowest levels of educational attainment, but that there was also little or no improvement over the 10-year time period that they looked at. By contrast, the educational attainment of off- reserve Aboriginals who attend provincial schools increased over time. That clearly shows that the provincial system, which is funded at a higher rate, is delivering a better product and that the students are graduating.

    In March 2013, the joint Government of Saskatchewan-FSIN report documented a wide variation in the graduation rates of First Nations students in band-operated schools, ranging from a low of only 15 per cent in Ontario to a high of 44 per cent in Saskatchewan. In some regions, most First Nation students attend band-operated schools, but, in others, most First Nation students attend provincial schools.

    The Hon. the Speaker pro tempore: Senator Dyck, do you need more time?

    Is it your pleasure, honourable senators, to grant five more minutes?

    Hon. Senators: Agreed.

    Senator Dyck: I will have to read fast.

    For example, in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, the regions with the most First Nation K to 12 students, most students attend band-operated schools. By contrast, in British Columbia and Quebec, most First Nation students attend provincial schools. These regional differences are important because they show that the funding available to bands should take into account where the student goes to school and because the additional dollars that bands have to pay to provinces are clawed back from their funding from the Aboriginal Affairs Department.

    Many cost-benefit analyses have looked at the projected economic benefits of closing the educational gap between Aboriginals and Canadians. According to a 2010 report of the Centre for the Study of Living Standards, increasing the number of Aboriginal Canadians who complete high school is a low- hanging fruit with far-reaching and considerable economic and social benefits for Canadians.

    We stated similar things in our Senate report, tabled here in December 2011. The joint national panel also made similar statements and, according to the Centre for the Study of Living Standards, the actual gain in projected monetary outcomes of closing the gap by 2026 are enormous a $36.5-billion increase in GDP in 2026 and a cumulative gain in GDP of $401 billion in that time period, enormous gains.

    Honourable senators, as noted in our own Senate report, it is clear that investing in closing the educational gap will pay off substantially in the long run, so now is the time to equalize the funding. This has been recommended in the major report that I just mentioned.

    Despite all these recommendations, and despite repeated calls from numerous groups to remedy the funding gap, the blueprint for the proposed First Nation Education Act does not include provisions to modernize, stabilize, revolutionize or equalize funding for First Nation K to 12 education. The shared goal of educational parity with provincial systems cannot be achieved without proper funding. Today, The Globe and Mail reported that:

    The Conservative government is promising new funding for schools on reserves, as it struggles to overcome native resistance to a proposed First Nations education act.

    At the same time, the government is warning that it will abandon the First Nation education act unless chiefs come on side and support it, but the minister didn't give any specifics as to what the new money would be. Honourable senators, this sounds like the minister is using the promise of new funding as either a bribe or a threat, depending on your perspective. This so-called new funding promised by Minister Valcourt is not really new. This is overdue money owed to First Nations.

    Our Senate report made it clear that federal funding for First Nations is insufficient and must be modernized. It was adopted unanimously by the committee and by the Senate as a whole, but the minister resists including the recommendations in our report. The minister is quoted as saying:

    ...the proposal has been hijacked

    that means his proposed First Nation education act

    ... in some areas for political reasons, mostly on the issue of funding...

    Really, I am trying to be polite, but how can the minister say this with a straight face, when messaging and directions from government headquarters not to invest in Aboriginal education have essentially hijacked our Senate report on the First Nations education?

    In the documents that the RCMP seized during their investigation of Senator Duffy, there was a memo complaining about non-compliance of the Senate. The March 22 memo reads:

    What we see is a laissez-faire system that requires constant direction, supervision, and follow-up from [the PMO] to ensure that Government messaging and direction are followed. This problem is not limited to expense and residency issues. There are Senate committee reports that call on the government to lower airport rents, create a national pharmacare plan, invest heavily in Aboriginal education...

    In other words, three of our Senate committees were out of line in making recommendations not sanctioned by government headquarters. This is not right.

    Honourable senators, we, as individual senators, have an opportunity to assert our independence as a chamber of sober second thought and wisdom by reaffirming our support for our report on First Nation education. We all know that some of the best strengths of the Senate are the committee work that we do and our committee reports. Please, let's continue to stand together to support the recommendations made in our report on K to 12 First Nation education and adopted by us two ye

    Honourable senators on the other side, please don't falter in your support for our Senate report because of pressure to fall in line with government messaging. The evidence is overwhelmingly clear: Kids on reserve are not getting an education comparable to provincial schools and underfunding is one of the main root causes.

    The Honourable Gerry St. Germain was chair of the Aboriginal Peoples Committee when we undertook the First Nation education study. Here are his words in a foreword to the report:

    This report makes two key recommendations that we believe are crucial to achieving structural reform and moving First Nations education from a situation of crisis to one of hope. Education is the vehicle that lifts us all up. Our first recommendation, which calls for a First Nations Education Act is intended to design a new and better vehicle. The second recommendation...

    dealing with funding

    ... puts the necessary fuel in the vehicle, to get us where we need to go.

    We can have a great vehicle, but if we don't have the fuel, the kids are not going to graduate.

    He continues:

    The cost in lost opportunities of not meeting this challenge is unacceptably high, both for First Nations and for Canada. This is a Canadian issue, not an Aboriginal issue, and we must all shoulder our responsibility as Canadians.

    Honourable senators, I agree with Honourable Gerry St. Germain and I would add: Together senators must act decisively and boldly. Let us heed Gerry St. Germain's wise words and urge Minister Valcourt to include our Senate recommendations on funding as an integral part of the new First Nations education act. A vague, undefined promise is not good enough.