Debates of the Senate  
1st Session, 41st Parliament,Volume 148, Issue 43
  Thursday, December 15, 2011
Report of the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples, "Reforming First Nations Education: From Crisis to Hope"
Hon. Lillian Eva Dyck:

Honourable senators, I rise today to speak to the report on education of the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples entitled Reforming First Nations Education: From Crisis to Hope.

First, I would like to acknowledge all the hard work of the members of the committee on both sides of the house. We started this study in April 2010, and through the witnesses and hard work of the members of the committee and all the questions and comments that they had, we were able to produce a report that I think is quite outstanding. I thank all members of the committee for that.

I would also like to thank the clerk of the committee, the analysts, the communications person, the translators and all the staff involved. As you know, when we travel we have to take a lot of staff with us. They all enabled us to do our work exceptionally well, and I thank them for that.

I especially want to thank the chair of the committee, the Honourable Senator St. Germain. He chaired the committee very well. He made sure that we worked together exceptionally well, and consequently we produced a report that, as I said, is quite exceptional.

We had numerous witnesses appear before the committee. We had site visits. We went to the Prairies and to Atlantic Canada. We had actually planned to go to some of the communities in Northern Ontario, close to some of the communities like Attawapiskat. Unfortunately, this fall those plans did not materialize, but that is what we had intended to do. We held public hearings.

We had a round table with experts in October, which was exceptional. We had Marlene Atleo, Bruce Stonefish, Colin Kelly, James Wilson and Harvey McCue. We had a focused discussion that informed the committee exceptionally well. It was that round table that convinced me that legislation was the way we should go.

As I mentioned earlier in my speech with regard to Bill C-10, funding of Aboriginal education is an important issue, but all reports up until now have focused on the inequities of funding and the cap that was put on at 2 per cent in 1996. All the reports up to now have said we should remove the cap and equalize funding. That is what they focused on.

Our committee went much further than that. We saw and our chair had this lovely analogy that we needed to devise a new vehicle. In fact, in my mind, the vehicle was not even gas-powered. The vehicle on reserve is like a horse-and-buggy model of education.

Senator Munson: Your Honour, I cannot hear the speech.

The Hon. the Speaker: Order. Honourable senators, discussions and other expressions should be taken outside the chamber.

The Honourable Senator Dyck has the floor.

Senator Dyck: Thank you, Your Honour.

As I was saying, on-reserve education is like the horse-and-buggy vehicle. What we, as a committee, have come up with is the space-age vehicle. It is a rocket ship. We are going to Mars and are heading for the moon.

It turns out there is inequitable funding, but there is no school board on reserve. There are no educational authorities. There is nothing that does all that wonderful strategic planning, nor the structures needed to support a good educational system. The money that is given to reserves is unequal, but it does not even fund the essentials like computer labs, libraries, First Nation language instruction, curriculum development and all those things that make for a good education.

As you all know, the national expert panel is up and running, and they hope to have their report by the end of the year. I am glad our committee was able to release our report before the national expert panel, because they have been on the road for far less time and would have had far less opportunity to hear all the witnesses that we, as a committee, have heard. However, it sounds as though they will come up with similar recommendations.

Our report contains four main recommendations. First, as I said, we are recommending a federal education act that will be jointly developed with First Nations and First Nation educational authorities. It will be an education act that is not imposed. It will be opt-in legislation. When you opt in, you will be able to repeal the sections related to education within the Indian Act that are that horse-and-buggy model. Those sections were the ones that allowed the residential school system to be imposed upon First Nations people.

The education act will recognize First Nation authority for on-reserve elementary and secondary education and will establish second- and third-level education structures. It will establish First Nation school boards and First Nation educational structures.

When we traveled across the country, we saw developments along those lines, with agreements and tripartite agreements, but no one has come to the level that other provincial or territorial off-reserve schools have. This will be the way to go. This will create a system that is equivalent to what provincial schools have. I firmly believe this will make a tremendous difference.

Second, the committee recommended statutory-based funding rather than the contribution agreements that came to Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development on a yearly basis. With contribution agreements, the money is not just earmarked for education. The individual First Nations do not necessarily even know how much money they will get. It creates an unstable situation, which does not allow for long-term planning. As all honourable senators know, in order to educate, you need to be able to have security of funding and long-term planning.

The legislation will allow the inclusion of a comprehensive formula that will address the funding inequities. The formula will allow the individual First Nations to apply for funding for such things as computer labs and libraries, and apply for extra funds if they live in a remote area such as in Attawapiskat. It will allow a formula to be developed to cover the cost of First Nation language instruction and the costs of things like incorporating, within the curriculum, First Nation content.

This will allow on-reserve schools to have a system that is comparable to schools located off-reserve.

The funding methodology will be developed in consultation with First Nations so that the formula then will be adapted for specific needs. As I said before, it will provide stable funding to allow long-term planning.

The third recommendation is the joint development of a Canada-First Nation action plan for educational reform, which will include a timeline, agreed upon by both parties, and will allow for the opting in.

Some of the First Nations that we visited were in good shape. In Nova Scotia we visited several Mi'kmaq schools, and their graduation rates were the opposite to the rest of Canada. They were graduating about 70 per cent of their Aboriginal students from high school, where the rest of Canada was failing about 70 per cent. They were coming along nicely, but they were having difficulty because the mechanism of funding did not allow them to develop First Nation curriculum or language instruction.

The fourth recommendation is developing a joint task force to oversee development of educational reform and to monitor progress. It calls for an annual review for five years, reporting to Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development and to the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations.

This joint task force is a critical component because it means that we are keeping tabs on what is happening. It will allow this process to proceed; it will be monitored, so, hopefully, the report will not sit on the shelf because they will have to report back to say what is happening, and let us move this thing along.

I would like to put our report into a bit of context. I know many other honourable senators are engaged in the concept of equality of education. In my office, I have stacks and stacks of reports on Aboriginal education, most of which talk about the gaps in educational attainment. They have studied to death what the problem is, but few have come up with any solutions. I think our committee, working together as well as we have, has come up with a solution that, as I said, is in the space-age era.

Some Hon. Senators: Hear, hear!

Senator Dyck: When the Auditor General was at the committee the other night, he also indicated that we need the structures in place. We need statutory-based funding for education, for drinking water and so on. Stable funding must be there. That echoes what the Auditor General said.

As I mentioned, the high school graduation rates within the Aboriginal communities across the country, for the most part, are bad. It is critical that we address this issue because, as we know, we have a rapidly growing Aboriginal population. I call it the "brown baby boom." With the "brown baby boom," we have this young group that is going to school now. If we do not give them a decent education, they are doomed to failure. They will end up in the prison systems. They will be working the streets. It is imperative that we start now because 50 per cent of the Aboriginal population is under the age of 25. There is also a big bubble coming now that is under the age of five. The time to act is now. I am very glad to have been on this committee because I believe this committee's work will transform the lives of those Aboriginal children.

Some Hon. Senators: Hear, hear!

Senator Dyck: There is a need not only for mainstream skills within the Aboriginal community. We also have to have the same education that other Canadians have in order to understand what is going on around us. For instance, we must be able to understand the complex documents that Aboriginal and Northern Affairs sends to on-reserve schools or to bands asking for audits and reports. You need a high level of literacy and numeracy in order to function in this modern world. This will allow that to happen. However, I think the critical thing is it will also allow the development of a complementary stream that will teach First Nation languages and culture. The content will be there, so that these kids can grow up with knowledge in both worlds, an understanding of their own culture, and a feeling, a great sense of pride and self-esteem in who they are. That has not happened in most of Canada. So many children now and it breaks my heart to see them are ashamed of who they are because they are not represented positively within the mainstream educational system.

Once we get these kids learning about their own history, they will be so proud. We saw that on our trip. We went to the Onion Lake Cree immersion school in Saskatchewan. We saw those little kids in assembly, listening to their teachers in Cree. It was so inspiring. They were happy and feeling good about themselves. We saw that in Nova Scotia when we went to Eskasoni Elementary & Middle School. We saw those little kids singing in their own language, and we saw their language on the wall in syllabics. We saw all of this, and it was terrifically inspiring. We must keep that up. We must go past those early years so they grow up to be competent, capable and happy adults.

Hon. Senators: Hear, hear!

Senator Dyck: On a personal note, I have spent more than 20 years in my volunteer life speaking about the importance of education. I firmly believe I got to the Senate because I went around to various schools talking to kids, little kids and big kids, talking about how they needed to stay in school. I was kind of like their role model. I had been an advocate for them. I feel tremendously honoured to be part of this report. I feel tremendously honoured.

Hon. Senators: Hear, hear!

Senator Dyck: As I said, it is very different from the myriad of other reports. We are so lucky to have such talented people on the committee working for us, and we came up with this vision. This vision will change the face of Aboriginal Canadians. It gives hope and inspiration to the adults, and it gives the children the passport to being productive, happy, contributing members of Canadian society.

Hon. Senators: Hear, hear!