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First Nations leaders express frustration with school funding

By: Susan Jones

  |  Posted: Wednesday, Nov 02, 2011 06:00 am

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Members of the National Panel on First Nations Elementary and Secondary Education received a warm welcome at Alexander Reserve’s Kipotakaw School Tuesday, but they also heard messages of frustration and anger.

“We are here to solve some of the many problems that plague children on First Nations reserves. I sincerely hope it is not a waste of time and that you will do everything in your mandate to improve First Nations education,” said Alexander Reserve chief Herb Arcand.

Panel members are Scott Haldane, president and CEO of YMCA Canada; George Lafond, a member of Muskeg Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, and Caroline Krause, a former school principal with the Vancouver Board of Education. The goal of the Students First panel is to listen to First Nations leaders, students, teachers, parents and elders and to report their findings to the Government of Canada.

On Tuesday, the forum heard a guarded message of hope partnered with scepticism.

Less per child

The main issues of concern expressed by the Treaty 6 educators and leaders, was lack of funding.

First Nations schools receive $2,000-$3,000 less in funding per student than provincially run schools. This funding gap is due, in part, to the two-per-cent cap on annual federal funding increases to First Nations that has been in place since 1996.

“At the beginning of October, when the new provincial premier announced she would restore $107 million to Alberta schools, I admit to feeling jealous frustration as a parent,” said Alexander director of education Laverne Arcand.

Arcand speculated that schools in Morinville and St. Albert would use the additional provincial funding to hire additional staff and increase resource spending to support their students and teachers.

“Why can’t the federal government do the same for us? And that’s the same question we’ve had for 20, 30, 50 years,” she said.

Treaty 6 Vice Chief Stan Lagrelle, from Sunchild Reserve near Rocky Mountain House, expressed weariness with yet another federal study and called instead for action.

“Over the years we’ve been studied and studied and I’m getting studied out,” he said, suggesting that if First Nations schools had more funding, and less in the way of study groups, they could add to their educational resources.

Language and culture

The main concern expressed by the speakers was the loss of language and culture on the reserves.

“Our children need to learn their language and they need to understand their culture and history,” said teacher Kevin Buffalo, as he explained an incident with his own children, who were not taught aboriginal history during a social studies class.

“I found that personally offensive that a teacher would instruct my children, who live on a reserve, and not teach them their history,” Buffalo said.

Dr. Phyllis Cardinal despaired about the lack of funding for reserve schools and explained that fewer dollars had a huge impact on the hiring of teachers.

“We should be able to hire top notch teachers but our salary grid on most reserves, is 20-40 per cent lower than provincial contracts. We cannot attract teachers who will make a long-term commitment to work on the reserves, so we train first-year teachers for two years, and then they are gone,” Cardinal said.

Arcand drew up a wish list of needs that included ways of increasing the graduation rate among aboriginal students but the task is very difficult, she said.

“I would love to have the same opportunities for our children as those children say in Morinville. But the issues of education haven’t changed in the last three decades. Aboriginal Affairs should not criticize First Nations but instead should step up to the plate and increase funding so that our population has the same level of education as any other Canadian,” she said.


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