Canada committed itself this week to funding reserve schools “on par” with schools overseen by the provinces, a long-overdue step that gives Prime Minister Stephen Harper an opportunity to create a legacy in an improved aboriginal education system. Why did we ever accept less?
The unanimous, all-party resolution in Parliament that contains that commitment is an implicit admission that aboriginal students on reserves are not receiving the well-funded education that their mostly non-aboriginal counterparts are entitled to. The resolution, originated by the New Democratic Party, promises an education system that will be “at a minimum, of equal quality to provincial school systems.”
Just what “on par” means, or what it will cost, is unclear. Figures on the website of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada show annual spending of $1.5-billion on “instructional and student support services” for 117,500 elementary and secondary students living on reserves. That equals about $12,820 for each student, which is higher than the national average of all primary and secondary education spending by provinces: $10,582 in 2009-10. But the $12,820 figure is more complicated than it looks, because 40 per cent leave their reserves to go to school, and they receive $3,600 more per student in federal funding than those on reserve. The reserve funding is unlikely to make up for the extra costs of remoteness and the large numbers of students with special needs, or the inefficiency of having large numbers of small schools – 55 per cent of reserve schools have fewer than 100 students. By comparison, the Northwest Territories spends $22,056 per student, the highest figure in the country, and Nunavut $17,798.
Whatever the appropriate spending level turns out to be, the federal government’s 2-per-cent cap on growth in total on-reserve education spending is self-defeating. That cap limits the ability of the schools to meet the needs of a fast-growing population. The provinces’ education budgets have been growing at a clip of just over 4 per cent, on average, even as their enrolments drop. The aboriginal birth rate is twice as high as that of the country as a whole.
To accept unequal schools is unthinkable. The all-party resolution on aboriginal schools is achievable, but the government and aboriginal communities need to show the resolve to work together and make it happen.