The gaps in the education system for aboriginal Canadians revealed by a national panel on Thursday are something no Canadian should have to put up with. That panel, set up by the Harper government and the Assembly of First Nations, has produced sensible recommendations for building an effective system. Continued leadership from Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan is needed to put that system in place, but native chiefs, too, need to lead, and a good number of them boycotted the panel.
After visiting 25 First Nations schools, the panel described the gaps as startling. No regular reporting on a child’s educational attainment. Inadequate or non-existent early literacy and numeracy programs, and no clear literacy programs to help children who fall behind. No functioning system for the assessment and support of special needs. Schools in substandard, unsafe physical condition, without plans to fix. No consistent practice around teacher certification, discipline or regulation, around monitoring of children’s attendance, around ensuring school is safe for children.
Yes, filling these intolerable gaps will cost more money. Education budgets across Canada have been growing at a 6-per-cent annual rate, but those increases have largely bypassed aboriginal communities, despite their high birth rate and dire needs.
It would be wrong, though, to be hung up on money. The system is opaque and lacks accountability. Canadians don’t even know how much money is being spent on aboriginal education – the panel itself didn’t offer a figure in the report. And the system doesn’t know how the children are doing – the tracking and testing done in the rest of the country are largely absent.
The education of aboriginal children and teens should be on the same Canadian sustainability agenda as trade with Asia, retirement-income security and improvements to science and technology programs. The panel wants to see a national commission, overseeing regional bodies that would work with provincial governments and, of course, First Nations. It’s a useful starting point for an urgent discussion on how to prepare the fastest-growing and neediest group of Canadians for self-sufficiency and prosperity.