“Tragedies outnumber successes in Native communities,” said former Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin at the Aboriginal Challenge, an event organized by the Globe and Mail newspaper and Random Publishing held on April 30 as part of the Globe’s Open House Festival.
Since leaving office, Martin has taken a lead role in some high profile endeavors to improve that rate of success. For example, in 2009 he made an investment of $50 million in a business loan fund called The Capital for Aboriginal Prosperity and Entrepreneurship program.
He still shakes his head at the lack of movement from the current Conservative government in key areas in First Nations communities. His Liberal government was defeated after it signed a multi-billion investment deal called the Kelowna Accord that would have seen a substantial funding infusion into such areas as First Nations health, housing and education. Since that loss, the agreement has been thrown into the dustbin of unfulfilled government promises.
Fellow panelist James Bartleman, (Chippewa) the former Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, said that giving children living on reserves the same standard of education received by children in off reserve schools in the province is vital to combat suicide and despair in Aboriginal communities.
Bartleman said schools on some reserves, particularly in the north, are severely underfunded. In Ontario, $12,000 is allotted to educate a child per annum, whereas only about $8,000 is allotted for each child living on a reserve and going to a reserve school. As a result, the reserve often gets teachers who aren’t equipped for the job. There are no excess funds to rebuild a school if it is burned down or severely vandalized. And special needs kids can’t get the types of programs they need to be successful.
He said the Aboriginal community has the fastest growing population in Canada and if this cycle of inferior education continues there will be little improvement in their lives in years ahead.
In Ontario, nine out of 10 children finish high school. On a reserve, only four out of 10 complete Grade 10. However, if a child from a reserve is educated off the reserve in a better school, his or her success rate is similar to his peer group. If he or she comes from a reserve school to a non-reserve school, his or her capabilities might be three years behind the peer group because of inferior education.
Panelists agreed that early childhood education was also essential to promote a child’s interest in school.
During the event, the issue of financial accountability by levels of government for schools was raised and the question was asked whether all bands had the capacity to look after the money advanced for schools by government.
Panelist Drew Hayden Taylor, an Ojibway author from Curve Lake First Nation, pointed out that in northern Alberta, Blue Quills College, a very successful post secondary institution, has been operating for 40 years on the Blue Quills Reserve north of Edmonton.
Their program incorporates First Nation culture, traditional knowledge and practices into their very successful courses. Hayden Taylor explained that a First Nation student coming to, for example, the Ontario College of Art and Design, would not have the same motivation for developing his First Nation concepts into a program as he would have in Blue Quills College’s traditional arts program.
All panelists agreed that the 400 recommendations for improvements to Aboriginal communities as set out in the Kelowna Accord signed in 2005 had been ignored. As an aside, the panelists commented that First Nations were nearly ignored in the recent federal election as well.
Bartelman said that during his time as Lieutenant Governor, one of his projects was to bring literacy to the north. He organized book drives to send books to reserve schools that had no libraries in Ontario’s north. His project was successful, but since he has been out of office, the program has collapsed.
The panelists agreed that the residential schools system had destroyed the family unit in First Nation communities, but what has also suffered was a couple of hundred years of deprivation.
It was suggested that writers expose the problems in Native communities, and attempt to change Canadians’ general attitude to these problems.
Martin explained that the north was now on fire with natural resource projects and the First Nation communities should not settle for royalties from the extraction companies. They would be far better off, he explained, if they built communities with the funds they received from corporations using their land.
All panelists agreed that if the recommendations in the Kelowna Accord, adopted in 2005 but ignored by the federal government, had been applied to the First Nations’ communities they would be further ahead today.
But they added, right now the most essential task for First Nations to take on is getting their youth educated.