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Prime Minister Stephen Harper delivers a speech in Whitehorse on Aug. 26, 2010. (Sean Kilpatrick/Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper delivers a speech in Whitehorse on Aug. 26, 2010. (Sean Kilpatrick/Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Harper to unveil aboriginal-education funding on Arctic visit Add to ...

Prime Minister Stephen Harper is heading to the Arctic in the dead of winter to add some heft to his promise to boost aboriginal education.

Mr. Harper is a frequent flyer to the North, but he usually goes in the summer. This is his second winter visit as Prime Minister, coming after a trip to Whitehorse in 2007.

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In Iqaluit on Thursday, Mr. Harper is expected to highlight increased government spending on adult basic education in the territories, federal sources tell The Canadian Press.

The goal of the funding is to improve literacy and job skills for the many aboriginal adults who have not been able to finish high school.

Mr. Harper flagged the initiative in the Speech from the Throne last spring, and followed up in last June's budget with $9-million over two years.

But so far, there have been few details on how that money would be spent or whether the funding would grow.

Thursday's announcement is expected to shed some light on those plans.

But the initiative is a far cry from addressing the repeatedly voiced concerns of first nations and Inuit leaders over the last year.

Aboriginals have been clamouring loudly for the federal government to give them equal funding, more control and better infrastructure in an attempt to improve the dismal graduation rates of their communities.

Mr. Harper has recognized the need to make changes, and has agreed with aboriginal leaders that improving education outcomes is a prerequisite to economic independence.

He has yet to act in a big way, although there are signs he is preparing for some modest action in the coming spring budget.

In the North, Inuit education levels are low, with just a quarter of students finishing high school, according to work done by the Inuit Tapiriit Kapanami.

The unemployment rate in Nunavut sits at about 25 per cent, compared with the national average of 7.6 per cent.

After the last budget, the ITK welcomed the $9-million for adult basic education, noting that it speaks to one of the recommendations in national strategy on Inuit education.

But national Inuit leader Mary Simon also expressed disappointment that the budget focused only on a sliver of the education problem in the North.

She also decried the lack of funding for mental health and social housing.

The suicide rate among the Inuit is about nine times higher than the average rate in Canada, and has doubled in the last 15 years, according to Aboriginal Affairs.

Overcrowding is also far worse among the Inuit than among the non-aboriginal population. According to information from the 2006 census, 31 per cent of Inuit homes were considered crowded, compared with 26 per cent for homes on First Nations reserves, and a three per cent average for Canada as a whole.

Indeed, the Harper government has frequently come under criticism for its approach to the North, with its intense focus on exerting Canada's sovereignty through the military but little focus on the social conditions of the people who live there.

“I am pleased by a number of measures that speak to long-standing Inuit concerns, such as the recruitment and retention of health care providers and increased resources for adult education programs,” Ms. Simon said after the budget.

“But I am concerned at the lack of any new funding for social housing or Arctic mental wellness facilities – for the second year in a row.”

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