Canada's Indigenous Affairs Minister says she remains bound by a pledge to close the gap between the quality of education delivered on reserve and what is provided in the rest of Canada, even though money she intended to apply to that effort was quietly taken off the books by the former Conservative government.
But, when pressed by New Democratic MPs on Friday to say that the Liberal campaign promises affecting First Nations education would be fully delivered despite the altered fiscal reality, Carolyn Bennett would not make a direct commitment.
"Although we are saddened by the revelation of the previous government taking the money that had been promised for First Nations education, we redoubled our efforts to actually close this gap," Dr. Bennett told the House of Commons during the daily Question Period.
First Nations schools across the country are in a "shocking" state, Dr. Bennett said. It is a situation that is reflected in a high-school graduation rate that was most recently measured at 40 per cent. "We are going to fix this problem," she said.
First Nations leaders said they are worried by the news, leaked to The Globe and Mail this week in advance of a budget later this month, that the Liberal government has less money than it expected to begin making needed improvements to reserve education.
"I strongly believe that the concern is there right across First Nations country," said Bobby Cameron, Chief of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations who holds the education portfolio on the executive of the Assembly of First Nations.
Mr. Cameron said he and other First Nations leaders are "advocating and lobbying to make sure that we get the much much needed funding increase for [kindergarten] to 12 on reserve – and it has begun today. We put out the e-mails, we put out the phone calls, we sent texts, we even FaceTimed."
The First Nations can't wait any longer for more money for education, said Mr. Cameron. "So we're hopeful, we're mindful, that that funding increase is going to stay as is. But we certainly are not going to sit back and wait for things to happen."
In 2014, when the Conservatives were in office, then-prime minister Stephen Harper promised multiyear funding of about $2-billion for on-reserve education in exchange for the support of First Nations leaders for new legislation that would govern how that education is delivered in their communities.
But the proposed law, called the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act (Bill C-33), was panned by chiefs who said there had been inadequate consultation and that Ottawa was putting the real control in the hands of the aboriginal affairs minister. While hundreds of millions of dollars of the promised new money was spent by the Conservatives, the impasse between the chiefs and the government left about $1.25-billion on the table.
The Liberals crafted their campaign pledges around the assumption that the unspent money had been built into the fiscal framework and was never removed. They promised new core funding for reserve schools that would "include the amount committed by Mr. Harper that has yet to flow, plus an additional $300-million per year in incremental funding, totalling $750-million per year by the end of our first mandate."
But sources told The Globe this week that the Liberals discovered after taking power that the money was taken out of the fiscal framework during the 2015-16 budget, something that was never publicly announced.
Charlie Angus, the indigenous affairs critic for the New Democrats, pointed out Friday that his party said during the election that the Liberals could not count on the $1.25-billion set aside by the Conservatives.
"Money doesn't sit in the drawer unused for three years," said Mr. Angus. "It was the first really big campaign promise that Justin Trudeau made. So they have to find that money. It's the oldest game in the book in Canadian political life to tell indigenous children they'll have to wait another few years until it's convenient. The bill's come due."