Prime Minister Stephen Harper acted correctly, if belatedly, when he decided to pour lots more money into aboriginal education.
The sums are considerable, but the need is great. On-reserve aboriginal educational achievement is poor by any standard. Yes, there are exceptions to be hailed. But there are many failures to be lamented.
Mr. Harper negotiated this file in its last stages, sitting down with Shawn Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations.
The result, detailed in the recent budget, will produce a First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act that enshrines the principle of aboriginal control of aboriginal education. Gone is any idea of integrated school systems. Aboriginals have won the fight that there should be parallel systems: one for their children on-reserve, and one for others.
It would have been easy, given this acceptance of parallel structures, to just hand over lots more money, willy-nilly, and hope for the best. Instead, the money comes with some strings attached, the most important perhaps being that there must be aboriginal school boards called First Nations education authorities.
Creating these might be harder than it sounds, since their creation will take power (and control of money) away from chiefs. And few political leaders of any stripe like giving up power.
The federal-aboriginal agreement also stipulates that aboriginal schools must teach a "core curriculum" that meets provincial standards and – critically – that all students must meet minimum attendance requirements. Schools will be issuing diplomas for graduates. There must also be annual reporting requirements from the aboriginal educational administrators.
This parallel structure will provide money for funding "language and cultural programing." What this will mean in practice remains to be seen.
There is a body of aboriginal thinking that puts great emphasis on "cultural" knowledge being on a par with, if not superior to, secular, scientific knowledge. In an interesting collection of essays on aboriginal education edited by Frances Widdowson and Albert Howard, one contributor writes that "many aboriginal students feel alienated when they realize that science curriculum has no connection to their cultural experiences."
These and related observations are precisely what the First Nations education authorities will be urged to accept. If they do, the big losers will be students, whose knowledge of basic science, math and other subjects will be so infused with cultural appropriateness by these theorists as to handicap them, rather than assist them, in wider Canadian society.
The Prime Minister pledged $1.25-billion over three years, beginning in 2016-2017, with an annual escalator of 4.5 per cent. In addition, the government will spend $500-million over seven years for infrastructure, and $160-million over four years for an "implementation fund." Together, this means about $500-million a year for the first four years – a hefty sum, but one that, properly spent, might nudge on-reserve schools toward some sorely needed improvements.
"Might" is the appropriate word. Although aboriginal leaders have won their case that funding for their on-reserve schools needed augmenting, money alone won't solve the problems there. Aphoristically, we could say that money is needed but the needs are not all about money.
The reserves themselves, in too many cases, are economic basket cases because of location, size, lack of wage employment, welfare dependency, breakup of families and a litany of other challenges.
As any educator in non-aboriginal society can attest, a school will find it difficult to compensate for poor social skills, discipline or work ethic if a child is less than ready to learn due to family or community issues.
More money cannot by itself remedy problems dumped on schools from outside their walls. University of Ottawa professor Ross Finnie's findings about who goes to university likely apply here. Does the student's family have a dictionary? Does the family respect learning and expect it from their children?
Mr. Atleo insists that lack of money has been holding back aboriginal school achievement. Mr. Harper has now produced cash and a new blueprint for how aboriginal schools should be governed. We can only hope that over time, the money will produce better results.