The coming federal budget should on the whole be a deficit-reducing, even an austerity document. Aboriginal education, however, is a special case. Ever since 1996, federal spending on primary and secondary education for young people from first-nations communities has been capped at 2 per cent a year – equal to the current inflation target – which might reasonably be interpreted as a freeze, notwithstanding a rising student population. In contrast, other students have benefited from the growth rates of the boom years.
Improved education for youth in first-nations communities is urgent, if Canada's fastest-growing demographic group is to become an opportunity – a counterbalance to the aging population – rather than a social disaster, yet another calamity for Canada's aboriginal peoples, and thus for all Canadians.
The government is most unlikely to give as much as the Assembly of First Nations wants. The National Chief, Shawn A-in-chut Atleo, proposes an increase of $500-million, toward post-1996 catch-up, for systems development such as curriculum and teacher training, and for a capital fund. Half a billion dollars is a lot, but substantial new investment is required.
A good consensus in favour of regional first-nations education authorities appears to be firming up. The model of a single schoolhouse on a single reserve, governed by a band council, was never viable; mercifully, any illusions on this score are in retreat. First-nations students, like anyone else, need services equivalent to those provided by school boards and by provincial education ministries.
The precise measurement of the gap between spending on first-nations and other students is a conundrum, mainly because of the difficulties of factoring in remoteness and population densities. The AFN, taking into account the different financial arrangements with the provinces, estimates it at $3,400 per child. Last month, in any case, a resolution in the House of Commons, passed unanimously, amounted to a national recognition that there is such a gap.
In the budget of March 29, Jim Flaherty, the Minister of Finance, should treat this issue as a high priority, not just one of many policy areas on which money could reasonably be spent. It is a problem that will either get better, or else much worse.