Debates of the Senate  
2nd Session, 41st Parliament, Volume 149, Issue 106
  Wednesday, December 10, 2014
 
Inquiry: Disparities in First Nations Education
Hon. Lillian Eva Dyck: Honourable senators, I rise today to give a response and the final speech on my inquiry on First Nations education.

The Hon. the Speaker: Before the honourable senator speaks, I wish to inform the Senate that if Senator Dyck speaks, her speech will have the effect of closing the debate on the motion. Senator Dyck.

Senator Dyck: Thank you.

Honourable senators, I rise today to give a response and the final speech on my inquiry on First Nations education. I would like to thank all senators who participated in the debate.

I started this inquiry in December 2013, a year ago. At that time there was great anticipation in the air about the forthcoming First Nations education act, and the chiefs were discussing it at the Assembly of First Nations meeting in Gatineau. But over the past year, hopes for reforming and improving education on reserves have been extinguished. How did this happen?

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In December 2013 at the Assembly of First Nations meeting, the chiefs passed a resolution that set out five conditions that needed to be met before they would accept the new First Nations education legislation. The five conditions were as follows: one, First Nations control, and respect of inherent treaty rights; two, increased statutory funding; three, incorporation of language and culture as core instructional elements; four, respect of First Nations' jurisdiction and rights in any oversight; and five, ongoing, meaningful engagement.

Negotiations took place, and in February 2014, National Chief Atleo and Prime Minister Harper announced Bill C-33, First Nations control of First Nations education act. The Prime Minister announced that an additional $1.9 billion would be earmarked in Budget 2014 for First Nations education, with an escalator of 4.5 per cent starting in 2016-17.

The bill consisted of the creation of a joint council of education professionals that would advise the minister in the development of regulations under the act. It established teacher certification and diploma recognition on and off reserve, and a creation of First Nation school boards. The bill also included provisions to remove references to residential schools from the Indian Act.

Shortly after the announcement of Bill C-33, many First Nation chiefs rejected it. They argued, one, that the five conditions had not been met; two, that they were not adequately consulted on the bill; and three, that the minister, rather than the First Nations, held the jurisdiction and authority to structure the education system on reserves.

Nevertheless, in April the government tabled the bill in the House of Commons, and a pre-study of the bill was to be done by the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples. However, the majority of chiefs continued to oppose Bill C-33 while the government maintained that they had a deal with National Chief Atleo. Many chiefs argued that the national chief could not agree to support legislation without their consent. They stated that Mr. Atleo didn't get their agreement and that the five conditions had not been met.

In order to address the leadership issues within the Assembly of First Nations, there was a move to activate the Confederacy of Nations structure within the governance structure of the AFN. On May 2, National Chief Atleo resigned, stating, "This work is too important, and I'm not prepared to be an obstacle to it or a lightning rod distracting from the kids and their potential."

Later on in May, at a special meeting of the AFN in Ottawa, the chiefs unanimously rejected the First Nations education act. Minister Valcourt said he would not move forward on any bill without the support of the AFN because Ottawa had spent time and money trying to rebuild its relationship with the group and First Nations. But Minister Valcourt also refused to meet with the dissenting chiefs and maligned them by calling them rogue chiefs. Valcourt told members of Parliament in the House of Commons that they should ". . . condemn, in the strongest terms, the threats of those rogue chiefs who are threatening the security of Canadians, their families, and taxpayers."

Furthermore, Minister Valcourt refused to increase funding for First Nations education in the interim.

Honourable senators, this take-it-or-leave-it approach from the minister, especially on something as vital as First Nations education, is ludicrous. Refusing to grant fair funding to the education of First Nations children, unless the chiefs accept the federal government's bill, is an autocratic use of power by the minister and the government. Allowing another school year to go by without any boost in funding for First Nations education will only worsen the educational gap between children living on-reserve and those off-reserve. It simply isn't fair or right.

On the prairies in particular, providing an equitable education for First Nation children not only is a key step in breaking out of the cycle of poverty and despair, it is a key step in the future positive growth of the provincial economies. You get an education; you get a job. It's that simple.

In mid-June, I wrote to the Prime Minister, asking him to intervene and to break the impasse between Minister Valcourt and the chiefs. I asked him to convince Minister Valcourt to meet with the chiefs who wanted more changes to Bill C-33 in order to fulfill the vision and laudable goals that the Prime Minister had announced in February. I received a response from an executive correspondence officer thanking me for taking the time to write and indicating that my letter would be forwarded to Minister Valcourt.

In my letter I stated:

Mr. Prime Minister, in July 2011, in recognition of your 2008 apology, you were honoured with being inducted into the Kainai Chieftainship and given the Blackfoot name Ninayh' poaksin, Chief Speaker. As an Honorary chief who holds the chief's headdress with the highest respect, you are expected to be an available resource to First Nations. I was glad to read that you promised that your government would follow the late Senator Gladstone's lead and work on behalf of all First Nations.

Prime Minister Harper, Chief Speaker, Ninayh' poaksin, on behalf of the First Nations' children and youth living on Indian reserves across Canada, I appeal to you to intervene now and convince Minister Valcourt to meet with the AFN chiefs who have stated that Bill C-33 needs more work to fulfil the vision and laudable goals for First Nations education that you announced on Feb. 7th.

In August, Interim National Chief Ghislain Picard wrote to the Prime Minister to urge him to meet with AFN to discuss the education situation. In an attempt to break the standstill, the interim national chief and the AFN executive tried to meet with the government to continue to work towards achieving a deal. However, the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development reiterated that it would not move forward with Bill C-33 without the AFN's support and that the funding promises would be tied to the structural reforms outlined in Bill C-33. Additionally, the department stated that they would wait until a new national chief was elected and clarified the position on the bill.

For years, the government has claimed that First Nations students on-reserve were being funded at a rate comparable to that of students off-reserve. Part of the purpose of this inquiry was to illustrate the disparities in funding for those students attending an on-reserve school compared to those attending provincial schools off-reserve. In my speech a year ago, I outlined just how bad the funding gap was and continues to be.

In the February announcement this year of new funding for First Nations education, after years of denying that First Nations education was underfunded, $1.9 billion and a 4.5 per cent escalator was promised for 2016 if the bill was passed. But, honourable senators, an internal document from Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development from June 2013 stated:

For the (kindergarten to Grade 12) education programs to maintain provincial comparability and NOT draw on other program funds . . . new investments are required, including a 4.5 per cent escalator on all K-12 education program funds going forward (starting in 2014/15) . . .

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Let me repeat that: The department knows that a 4.5 per cent escalator to replace the long-standing 2 per cent cap is needed, and this should have started in 2014-15, this year.

It makes no sense for Minister Valcourt to refuse to increase funding for First Nations education, unless the controversial Bill C-33 is passed, when the memo clearly states that increased funding is needed now, not one or two years from now, after the bill is passed.

Holding the chiefs hostage to a promise of future funding is contrary to the content of the department's own conclusion in June 2013, which is that new funds are needed right now in 2014-15, not after the bill is passed.

Honourable senators, we're fast approaching 2015. Back in 2005, 10 years ago, there was a deal on the table that was agreed to by federal, provincial, territorial and Aboriginal leaders. That deal, dubbed the Kelowna Accord, had the potential to transform not only education on reserve, but it was also transforming the relationship between First Nations and the federal government. First Nations were properly consulted during negotiations of the accord. With regard to funding for education, $1.8 billion was earmarked. It is sad that 10 years later, 10 years removed from the Kelowna Accord and with the change in the federal government, we have nothing else to show in its stead.

The only other bill that affects First Nation education is the private member's bill, Bill C-428, an act on amending and replacing the Indian Act. Though it is a private member's bill, it incorporates the same clauses in the government bill, Bill C-33, which remove the sections of the Indian Act that make reference to residential schools. In June 2008, Prime Minister Harper promised to do so in his apology over Indian residential schools. This promise was reiterated by then Minister Strahl at the first national meeting of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2010. It is a travesty that the federal government has basically downgraded the importance of its promise by letting one of their members of Parliament incorporate these clauses into his bill, which isn't focused on education. The federal government sends a clear signal: Supporting one of their minor members of Parliament is more important than negotiating with the chiefs on First Nations education legislation.

The acrimonious stalemate over First Nations education is only one aspect of the deteriorating relationship between First Nations and the federal government. Increasingly, First Nations have had to take the federal government to court to have their rights acknowledged. For example, Dr. Cindy Blackstock's case at the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal on discrimination in the levels of funding for First Nation child and family services programs on reserve has just heard final arguments. The AFNQL filed a lawsuit against the federal government over Bill C-33 in February. Only two weeks ago, Onion Lake First Nation filed a lawsuit against the government over Bill C-27, the First Nations Financial Transparency Act.

The state of the relationship between First Nations and the federal government is so bad that prominent Canadians recently stepped forward to steer us back towards a path of mutual respect and understanding between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians. Canadians for a New Partnership was formed by former Prime Ministers Paul Martin and Joe Clark, former National Chief Ovide Mercredi, former Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami leader Mary Simon, former Northwest Territories Premier Stephen Kakfwi, former Auditor General of Canada Sheila Fraser, and Justice Murray Sinclair, who led the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Ten months after the Prime Minister announced the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act, the chiefs are now meeting in Winnipeg. A new national chief was elected today, just over an hour ago. Congratulations to Chief Perry Bellegarde, who is the new National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations.

Prior to this, earlier in the day, all three candidates had called for a reset in order for First Nations to be consulted. Ten months have gone by with the minister refusing to budge. Now is the time where he will have to budge because we have a new national chief. At the very least, the minister ought to offer to increase First Nations education funding by 4.5 per cent as a sign of good faith in negotiations with the incoming national chief in order to be consistent with what the department released and contained in the memo of June 2013.

Honourable senators, let me conclude by quoting at length from an article by Dr. Cindy Blackstock.

In her opinion piece, she says:

The federal government is putting its controversial First Nations education act "on hold until" the Assembly of First Nations "clarifies" its position on the legislation.

Aboriginal Affairs Minister Valcourt recently said, "I am disturbed that they would play politics on the backs of First Nation children." That is a bit rich coming from a government that has been in power for eight years and only promises desperately needed education funds after the next election.

Moreover, that statement lies in direct contrast with the government's actions at the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal where it is vigorously defending inequitable child welfare funding on reserves even though government and officials confirm the underfunding and its tragic links to children going into foster care unnecessarily.

This whole mess leaves me with one key question if children really are a top priority for the federal government then why are they holding back the money?

That's Cindy Blackstock. I will continue with what she said:

Adam, a grade 3 student at the Kashechewan First Nation wants to know that too. He writes, "When I grow up I want to be a police officer because I will put bad guys in jail. I like school because we do art and recess. I need school because I need to learn. You promised native people to get a school it's not fair for native people to lose school. I need to go to college to be a police officer."

That kid is so right. He needs an education in order to get a job.

She continued:

Canadians of every political stripe are fair-minded people who love children so it's time we stop letting the federal government get away with these excuses while children suffer. The children deserve proper funding for education, health and child welfare on reserves while they still have a childhood.

First Nations education needs action now.

If children are a top priority for federal government, why hold back education dollars?

Honourable senators, thank you for your attention to this important issue. Once again, I offer my congratulations to Chief Perry Bellegarde, our new National Chief. They are discussing the First Nations Education Act right now in Winnipeg at the Assembly of First Nations and will be in a position to restart negotiations, and I hope Minister Valcourt starts to budge.

(Debate concluded.)