Canadians, non-aboriginal and aboriginal alike, are kidding themselves, or at least placing exaggerated hopes in the wrong place.
We are hoping that with more public money, aboriginal reserves will give their residents a much better standard of living. Some reserves can but most cannot, because of remoteness of geography, small populations, the lack of a wage economy and a host of social problems. Most of the successful reserves are close to cities, which are economic engines in today's society all around the world, have enlightened leadership and exist with one foot squarely planted in mainstream society.
It is argued that, among other remedies, better education for the youth on reserves, even isolated ones, will improve conditions if not solve problems. This assertion assumes that if young people did receive a solid education, they would remain on the reserves, a dubious proposition when so few of the reserves offer much by way of employment.
What are educational results today on reserves? John Richards, a professor at Simon Fraser University and a long-time writer on aboriginal affairs, and Barry Anderson, a former senior official with the British Columbia Education Ministry and a consultant to the First Nations Education Steering Committee, have just underscored how badly on-reserve students perform relative to their peers.
Only about four in 10 young First Nations adults (age 20-24) living on reserve graduate from high school, compared with seven in 10 off-reserve, eight in 10 Métis and nine in 10 non-aboriginals. On-reserve schools, generally speaking, produce low-quality results on both core academic subjects and "culturally relevant" ones, they explain in a paper for the C.D. Howe Institute.
Many aboriginal leaders assert that lack of money is the problem. Not so, report Messrs. Richards and Anderson. In 2012-13, the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development (as it was then called) spent $1.6-billion for 113,000 K-12 students in reserve or nearby provincial schools. "This amounts to $14,300 per student," they write. "Statistics Canada's estimate of average per-student K-12 funding in provincial schools is $13,300." Even more would have been spent had the Tea Party faction in the Assembly of First Nations not sabotaged an agreement negotiated between the AFN leadership and the previous Conservative government.
Many reserve schools are tiny. Forty per cent have fewer than 50 students; more than half have fewer than 100. The schools are so small that no sensible benchmarking can be done against schools in the provincial system. Their size begs the obvious question: How can effective education be offered, at whatever level of funding, with such small numbers, combined with the difficulty of getting well-trained teachers?
Messrs. Richards and Anderson present a slew of recommendations for improvement – including, yes, more money beyond the additional per-capita $1,000 on-reserve students now get, since it does cost more to educate students in remote areas who often have more special needs than
students in the provincial school system.
If money alone were the answer, the gap between on-reserve and off-reserve aboriginal students would not today be so large. The fact of being educated on reserves with so few opportunities, small populations and isolated geographies produces the disparities. We are kidding ourselves if we think otherwise.
It's the same kind of gap that a comprehensive report by the National Aboriginal Economic Development Board recently underlined. The employment rate for those on-reserve was 35 per cent, 61 per cent off-reserve. When only one in three people has a job, any community is going to suffer from social problems. For many reserves, although certainly not all, their location and size works against more employment.
In a high-unemployment environment that breeds social problems, calls are repeatedly made for governments to provide more money. The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal recently found that child-welfare funding on
reserves was below that of agencies off-reserve and instructed the government to rectify the problem. The Trudeau government immediately said it would try.
It is worth remembering, however, a scathing 2013 report from Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, British Columbia's Representative for Children and Youth. Normally, the outspoken and able Ms. Turpel-Lafond criticizes government, but that time she examined on-reserve child welfare a decade or so after responsibility for it was taken from the provincial government and turned over to bands.
She found rampant neglect, child abuse, lack of accountability and oversight. Money had linked people's pockets without helping children. Bands, she found, simply did not know what they were taking on. Money was not the core of the problems she uncovered. Handing over responsibility abruptly had been a huge mistake.