A child-welfare advocate is accusing the federal government of failing natives when it comes to education, saying that funding military projects and other initiatives should never come at the expense of a young person's future.
Cindy Blackstock made the comments Wednesday at a special session on education at the annual meeting of the Assembly of First Nations in Moncton.
"Racial discrimination against children should never be a legitimate fiscal restraint measure," Ms. Blackstock said in a speech that generated applause several times.
"It's our job to make sure that they are not funding fighter jets and other types of projects on the backs of children who just want to go to school."
Ms. Blackstock told the crowd gathered at a downtown hotel that all children regardless of their ethnicity deserve clean and safe schools that deliver quality education. But she said that's not the case for aboriginal children.
Peter Penashue, the federal Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs, said Ottawa is making education a priority.
"I think the government of Canada recognizes there's a problem, the Assembly of First Nations recognizes there's a problem, the chiefs right across the country recognize there's a problem with education," Mr. Penashue told reporters after sitting in on part of the meeting.
Mr. Penashue, Canada's first Innu MP, touted the work of a joint panel on improving education for aboriginal children in kindergarten to Grade 12. The panel was launched last month by the assembly and the federal government and aims to find ways to get better education outcomes for native children, about half of whom don't finish high school.
It will be seeking public input on how to design legislation to allow natives to pass their own education laws, manage and improve the quality of schooling, and set up regional school roundtables.
Mr. Penashue wouldn't commit to more funds for education, saying the panel must complete its work first.
"I think it's a very important review that's taking place – one that serves the Assembly of First Nations right across the country and the government of Canada," he said.
"I think we all recognize that there's a significant amount of dollars that are on the table for education. The problem is we don't really have a full understanding as to why education's not working."
But Ms. Blackstock said there's simply not enough money to go around.
The Assembly of First Nations estimates that each aboriginal child receives $2,000 to $3,000 less in education funding a year than off-reserve children across the country.
Ms. Blackstock said some on-reserve schools are dealing with mould in their buildings, adding that she's heard of one school that has an infestation of snakes.
"This is not a question of us versus Canadians. We stand with Canadians who believe in equality, fairness and justice," said Ms. Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society and a member of the Gitxsan First Nation in British Columbia.
"There is absolutely no excuse for the type of discrimination that our kids continue to experience."
Chief Gilbert Whiteduck of the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation in Quebec said he believes the education panel has only created more delays. He said aboriginals are watching their language erode and young people drop out of school while federal dollars are being doled out across the country for unrelated projects.
"We hear the minister saying he's not ready to sign a blank cheque," he said. "Well, what kind of cheque is being signed when it comes to the military? What kind of cheque is being signed when it comes to certain regions in Canada?"
Some in the crowd criticized natives of doing too much talk and not enough action.
National Chief Shawn Atleo told the group – a number of whom were teachers – that work starts with grassroots discussions like the one unfolding in Moncton.
"We take up the mantle of responsibility now ourselves," he said. "And I am, for one, greatly appreciative that if we're going to have strong conversations and push for something to be a national priority that education would be there."
He pointed to Sheila Fraser's final report to Parliament as auditor-general, in which she said life on reserves is deteriorating to the point where Ottawa needs to overhaul its funding approach.
The 10-year examination of native policy concluded that education and child welfare – along with adequate housing and clean drinking water – are in an "unacceptable" state, despite a large stack of government recommendations, initiatives and money over the years.
Following the report's release, both Mr. Atleo and Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan announced a joint process to develop goals for education, economic development and governance of natives.
The aim is to have the process culminate in a summit later this year, which Mr. Atleo said could also tackle issues including the Assembly of First Nations' desire to move away from the Indian Act and embark on a more independent relationship with the federal government.
Mr. Penashue, in remarks later Wednesday, said there's consensus within the federal government that aboriginal matters, including education, need to be tackled.
"They're prepared to sit down and make an effort to try to deal with these very difficult issues," he said.
"The only way to inspire meaningful and lasting improvements in quality of life on First Nations is through strategic collaboration."