Debates of the Senate  
1st Session, 41st Parliament,Volume 148, Issue 52
  Wednesday, February 15, 2012
Question: Aboriginal Education Funding
Hon. Claudette Tardif (Deputy Leader of the Opposition): Honourable senators, my question is for the Leader of the Government in the Senate. The national panel mandated to evaluate First Nations elementary and secondary education, created by the federal government and the Assembly of First Nations, released a report last week recommending positive measures for First Nations education.

The panel's recommendations come in addition to several reports released over the past few years that reiterate what everyone already knows: First Nations communities lack a truly organized education system, and resources and investments earmarked for students on reserves are significantly less than those earmarked for students in provincial school systems. An earlier report calculated that First Nations schools receive between $2,000 and $3,000 less per student than provincially run schools.

The government has all the facts it needs to rectify the situation and develop a funding formula tailored to the needs of First Nations students and communities.

Madam leader, what is your government waiting for to eliminate the gap in funding for First Nations education?

Hon. Marjory LeBreton (Leader of the Government): I thank the honourable senator for the question. I hasten to add that there was also an excellent report prepared by the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples, which I am sure Senator Tardif would have wanted to acknowledge and support.

We have obviously received the recommendations of the panel. The government, most particularly the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs, is working now to quickly study these recommendations. As I have said before, with regard to Aboriginal education, this is something that the government will work on in partnership with our Aboriginal leaders and communities.

As honourable senators know, we have signed five education partnership agreements with the provinces and First Nations. In January, Minister Duncan was proud to sign the British Columbia First Nations Tripartite Education Framework Agreement. This was a very good program in which to participate. There is every indication that very good results will come of it. Since coming to office, the government has built 22 new schools; and last month, it tendered for a new school in Attawapiskat.

Senator Tardif: The panel finds that most First Nations schools clearly do not have enough resources to help their students succeed. They have fewer books and computers, classrooms are overcrowded, and there is a huge disparity in the salaries of the teachers and principals.

Given the extent of the current underfunding and the urgency of the situation, the panel is recommending immediate financial measures.

My question is simple: will the government follow through on these urgent recommendations in the next budget in order to reduce the growing gap in education funding for Aboriginal children?

Senator LeBreton: The government acknowledges, as did the report, that serious issues need to be addressed. The Crown-First Nations meeting held in late January focused almost exclusively on economic opportunities and education for Aboriginal youth. The government takes this matter seriously. Significant progress has been made. I assure honourable senators that the government realizes the severity of the issue. The Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development and his parliamentary secretary will take measures as quickly as possible to address these many concerns.

Hon. Lillian Eva Dyck: Honourable senators, this is a critically important issue. I would like to provide a concrete example of the funding gap and how it affects teachers' salaries in Saskatchewan.

As reported in The Globe and Mail last week and on CBC Radio, the principal of the school on Waterhen Lake First Nation in Saskatchewan, Mr. John Walter, said that the funding is so critical that he has to choose between firing some of his teaching staff or asking them all to take a pay cut, which of course he should not have to do. Senator Tardif talked about the lack of resources. Mr. Walter has to cut programs and put together his own computers.

Despite all of that, the school program is succeeding. This year, they will graduate six students from high school, and their success rate in math has increased. Two years ago, none of the students were performing at grade level, but today, 33 per cent are meeting that standard. Mr. Walter said that if he cannot keep his teachers, in particular the experienced teachers who cost more because they have been teaching longer, then that success rate is at risk. He is truly in a dilemma. Like many other on-reserve schools and principals, he cannot match the salary that a comparable teacher would receive if they taught at the provincial level off reserve.

Mr. Walter has been told by Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada that there will not be additional funding for salary increases for his teachers. What is he to do? What will the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development do about this funding gap, in particular for Waterhen Lake school in Saskatchewan? What will the government do? Will it fail this school and not provide the funding to retain those experienced teachers?

Senator LeBreton: The honourable senator has brought to the attention of this place the situation in one school. All of the things that she put on the record, and she cites one example, are reflective of the situation in many communities across the country.

There is no doubt, honourable senators, that we cannot tolerate young people in our Aboriginal communities leaving communities and not being properly educated. The honourable senator participated in and supported a Senate study, and the government has received the report and the recommendations of the national aboriginal education panel. The government takes these recommendations very seriously. The minister is working extremely hard and realizes that there is a grave problem. The government will not sit by and watch this situation deteriorate further.

The government is committed. It was clear at the Crown-First Nations meeting at the end of January that the government and the Aboriginal leadership are one and the same on this issue. They recognize that in order to pull communities out of the existing conditions, first and foremost proper education must be provided for young people.

Senator Dyck: I agree with the leader that this is a critical situation and that I used only one school as an example. However, the national report also states clearly that the situation is critical and that in the meantime funding pressures should be relieved in First Nations schools through increases that are equal to those of provincial schools serving similar locations and regions with similar needs.

The question is: What will the government do in the next budget? Will it be possible to equalize, at the very least, the teachers' salaries, which are critical to the successful education of students? We are not asking for everything but can the leader at least say that the government will put aside money to equalize the teachers' salaries?

Senator LeBreton: As the honourable senator would understand, I am not in a position to divulge various components of the budget. The Minister of Finance and other ministers are in the consultation process to ensure that all views are incorporated in the deliberations and ultimately in the budget.

I can assure honourable senators that the Honourable John Duncan, Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, is fully committed and engaged and is working hard within government and with his Aboriginal partners to alleviate what up until this point has been a very unacceptable situation.