APTN National News
OTTAWA–Canada desperately needs to invest in First Nation education to balance off a looming labour shortage and maintain key social programs like universal health care, says Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo.
At a press conference Tuesday in Ottawa, Atleo said closing the education funding gap between First Nations children and the rest of the country would lead to a $179 billion return to Canada’s Gross Domestic Product by 2026.
“We are talking about the most impoverished, the highest level of unemployment, the lowest level of education success,” said Atleo.
“If we turn that around, this country (would then have) our people contributing to the economy in greater ways than now…balance off the labour shortage that is being caused by the aging mainstream workforce and…respond to challenging questions like, ‘how is this country going to support and pay for its health care costs?'” said Atleo.
Atleo repeated a call for a meeting of provincial premiers and the prime minister on First Nations education.
“Our children are not being treated fairly,” said Atleo. “There needs to be a substantial investment in our young people.”
Prime Minister Stephen Harper promised in his Speech from the Throne this spring to “work hand-in-hand with Aboriginal communities and provinces and territories to reform and strengthen education.”
Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff said Monday his party was committed to lifting the two per cent cap on post-secondary funding for First Nations people his party imposed in 1996 and erasing the current education gap between on-reserve children and non-Aboriginal children across Canada.
“This is an issue of fundamental justice and equality and that is what we will be fighting for in this Parliament,” said Ignatieff.
Facing questions from NDP Aboriginal affairs critic Jean Crowder, Indian Affairs Minister John Duncan said Tuesday during question period that his government was committed to working with the provinces and territories on First Nations education.
“This government understands the importance of education,” said Duncan.
Duncan said his government had spent millios of dollars on nearly 100 school projects 18 schools had been constructed or renovated under the government’s economic stimulous package.
“The Conservatives have a shameful history when it comes to First Nations education,” said Crowder.
Atleo said First Nations youth and children need about $2 billion invested in education achieve the level enjoyed by their counterparts in the rest of Canada.
Quoting from a 2009 Parliamentary Budget Officer report, Atleo said the federal government has been underfunding First Nations education by about $300 million a year since 1996 when Jean Chretien was prime minister.
Atleo also says the cap translates into an annual $184 million shortfall for on reserve school buildings, no funding for computers and software and on-reserve students receiving about $2,000 less per year than provincial school students.
Atleo added that some 3,000 qualified high school graduates won’t go to university or community college this year because band councils get a set amount each year for post-secondary education and not all who apply get funding.
Kitigan Zibi Chief Gilbert Whiteduck said First Nations won’t take no for an answer from Ottawa on the issue.
“We are going to step up our actions even more (if Ottawa says no),” said Whiteduck. “We can’t allow what is going on in our communities anymore.”
About 14 people from Kitigan Zibi First Nation in Quebec are walking the 140 kilometres south to Ottawa. They are expected to arrive Thursday.
Whiteduck has said blockades and other similar actions are on the table if Ottawa does not come through with a substantial increase in education funding.
But not everyone is on board. Conservative Senator Patrick Brazeau says the chiefs have to be accountable for the education dollars already received from the federal government.
Brazeau wrote on Facebook Saturday that he supported raising awareness on Aboriginal education.
“I’m equally supportive of leaders to demonstrate they currently spend 100 per cent of the funding they receive for education on education. Where are those facts?” wrote Brazeau.