Shannen Koostachin was a vibrant and focused 15 year old from Attawapiskat. As a youth, her community’s school was closed due to an oil spill. As a teenager, she became an activist and fought for a new school building, and the broader quest of equal access to education for First Nations kids. Currently, reserve schools funded by the federal government get less money per student than provincial public schools. The graduation rate on reserve is typically half the national average. Shannen died in a car accident in 2010, but her legacy lives on. February 27th is the 2nd anniversary of a “Shannen’s Dream” bill, so named after her passing by unanimous vote in the House of Commons. It calls for high-quality, culturally relevant education for First Nations children, on par with what is offered by the provinces.
There is no agreement on what the funding gap is between schools on reserve and in the rest of Canada, but the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) estimates it at $3,500 per student per year. Don Drummond, former TD Bank Chief Economist, also studied the gap last year. In an email he said “…in aggregate, we figured it was probably around 30 percent, in which case an additional almost $4,000 per student would go a long way to closing [it].”
The government’s announcement of $1.25 billion in new core funding over three years, works out to $416.6 million per year. Divided by the roughly 110,597 First Nations students that has to cover, the FNCFNEA represents an increase of some $3,767 per student, per year. That is right between Drummond’s and the AFN’s estimates. Of course, providing education on remote reserves is more expensive, so the gap may not be closed for everyone. Still, the new money could put many on-reserve school funding in the same ballpark as provincial schools. An annual increase of 4.5 percent will help them keep pace.
The FNCFNEA includes $500 million over seven years for infrastructure, roughly in line with current levels. There will also be a transition fund of $40 mllion over three years. That means about $60,000 annually per community, hopefully enough to hire someone to manage the changeover.
The Executive Director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society (and head of a ‘Shannen’s Dream’ letter writing campaign), Dr. Cindy Blackstock, is critical of the funding, pointing out the money will not help thousands of children in school today who she says are “only children once.”
She also worries the money could be withdrawn. But Drummond argues: “I can’t see why the government would alter their own decision… And if the government [were] to change it seems unlikely the Liberals or NDP would cut the funding.”
The Government is Listening to Some Chiefs
Last fall, the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada circulated a draft bill called the First Nations Education Act (FNEA). The FNEA was pilloried by First Nations educators for concentrating too much power in the hands of the minister and not addressing the funding gap. Last December, the AFN Chiefs passed a resolution rejecting the proposed FNEA. The feds appear to be listening and have included the AFN’s demands for funding and First Nations language and culture in the FNCFNEA announcement.
The Government is Only Listening to Some Chiefs
Some in the AFN may have pull, but other leaders appear left out. On February 20, the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador applied for a judicial review of the consultation process, which led to the FNEA and FNCFNEA. It’s unclear how successful the AFNQL’s court challenge will be given the National AFN participation in the design of the FNCFNEA announcement, but what is clear is that the Quebec Chiefs do not feel invested in this process.
On January 27, the details of the FNCFNEA were negotiated in a meeting betweenthe AFN’s Regional Chief Morley Googoo, AANDC Minister Bernard Valcourt, and others. This was followed by a briefing within AFN on February 4. Some have complained that other Regional Chiefs had less than a week’s notice before the announcement.
With skepticism of the old FNEA coloring perception of the new FNCFNEA—a process that appears to be concentrated in the hands of a few people—is doing nothing to help make the bill more popular among First Nations people.
A Draft Bill
There is no draft FNCFNEA yet, and it is not clear how much of the original FNEA will survive. The AFN says the FNEA is dead. But when I asked if there is a new proposed bill for the FNCFNEA, staff at the office of the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs forwarded me links to the July 2013 blueprint for legislation and the October 2013 proposed FNEA bill. No one from the minister’s office will answer specific questions regarding whether the FNEA is the starting point for the FNCFNEA, but in a written statement, they stated that “we will continue to work with First Nations to finalize and implement the Act.” There will be a new draft bill, but it appears as though the minister’s office is using the original FNEA as the basis for the new legislation.
The Elephant in the Room
There is an element missing from much of the recent public discussion around First Nations education: We, as Indigenous people, need to take more responsibility for the education of our children. It is easy to point the finger at the Prime Minister and say he must do more to help our children. It is more challenging to ask whether we do all we can.
This cannot be legislated. We need to read with our children every night. We need to practice numeracy and math with them. And if we are serious about preserving our languages and cultures, then we must simply start speaking and practicing them. Many of us are doing these things. More of us need to get involved.
The Final Grade
Will the FNCFNEA make Shannen’s Dream a reality? Probably not, as Dr. Blackstock says “We need to measure success at the level of children. When we see change there, we can get excited.”
In as much as it starts to close the funding gap for First Nations schools, it is a step in the right direction. However, money alone will not buy educational equality. The problems of too many First Nations children extend far beyond the classroom. Confronting those problems will require a monumental effort in reaching out to young people and inspiring communities to bounce back from the legacies of residential schools, the Indian Act and self-destructive habits.
Shannen Koostachin once said she would “never give up” until First Nations children had equal educational opportunity. The FNCFNEA might be a step closer to her dream becoming reality, but it is likely not enough to have persuaded her to stop fighting.