Madam Speaker, I am pleased to speak today on behalf of the Liberal Party on the opposition day motion on Shannen's dream, moved by the member for Manicouagan, although I must say I was disappointed by the gesture made by the member in an inappropriate attempt at humour at the beginning of this very serious debate.
It also gives me a huge opportunity to thank the people who help me do my job on a daily basis: the Right Hon. Paul Martin; our leader from Toronto Centre; former minister Andy Scott; members of the Aboriginal Peoples' Commission; and past aboriginal candidates, especially Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux; and our aboriginal colleagues in the Senate. I also want to thank Daniel Rubinstein and Rick Theis in my office. This is a huge file and it is not possible for me to handle it in any way on my own.
Today's motion is inspired by the courageous words and work of Ms. Shannen Koostachin of the Attawapiskat First Nation, who raised national awareness of the gap between first nations and non-first nations education systems. She died tragically in a car accident before she could realize her goal of equal education for first nations kids.
At this time I think we also need to applaud the inspiration and tireless work of Cindy Blackstock and the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, who thankfully is there all the time, pushing us to be better. When people across the country ask what they can do, sending people to the society's website to understand Shannen's dream, Jordan's principle and the first nations “I Am a Witness” campaign actually makes people feel there is something they can do to bear witness to this unfortunate situation, where more and more causes across this country are really relegated to the refrain of, “See you in court”.
On behalf of my Liberal colleagues, I would like to pay tribute to Shannen Koostachin, reiterate our strong support for Shannen’s dream, and demand that the funding gap be closed for first nations education.
We support the right of every aboriginal student to quality and culturally appropriate education. In order to achieve this, the federal government must work in consultation and partnership with the first nations in order to, first, admit that a funding gap exists, which the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development refuses to do; cooperate with the first nations in order to establish a framework to fund education based on real needs and costs; create structures to guarantee success and also mutual accountability when it comes to results in first nations education.
The recent report on the National Panel of First Nations Elementary and Secondary Education concluded there was actually no first nation education system in Canada. Instead, a patchwork of uncoordinated, unaccountable and underfunded policies and programs have failed first nations students.
The panel heard from first nations about many gaps, including: no regular reporting on the educational attainment of the child; poor quality of reporting on learning needs; inadequate or non-existent early literacy and numeracy programs; absence of any meaningful or functioning special needs system; no funding or support for language and cultural curriculum and programs; poor school facilities, including at least 100 schools that are not up to standard in terms of physical facilities and are not safe places for learning; very limited programs for quality distance learning; limited availability of technology or library support; and significant discrepancies in remuneration, institutional support and benefits for school staff, including teachers and principals.
Unlike in the provincial education system, where there is a statutory guarantee for education and funding that is based on real costs and real needs, there is no legislation governing first nations education and a cap currently exists on funding increases.
With these significant gaps, it is no surprise that the educational outcome of first nation learners on reserve are so unacceptably poor. According to the aboriginal affairs 2010 departmental performance report, the high school graduation rate for first nation students living on reserve was just 33.3% in 2009-10. The graduation rate actually fell 7% from 2008 to 2009.
In comparison, 77% of non-aboriginal Canadians have a high school diploma.
The Auditor General noted that at this pace, it would take 28 years for the first nations communities to bridge the education gap.
The lack of educational attainment is directly related to the disproportionately high rate of incarceration of aboriginal people in Canada. For example, according to the 2006 census, the incarceration rate among aboriginal young adults in Alberta without a high school diploma and employment was 46.1 per thousand, compared to 2.4 per thousand for those with a high school diploma and a job.
A major impediment to closing the gap is in the chronic underfunding of first nations education, which the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development continues to shamefully deny.
For the benefit of the minister, here are the facts. Based on population growth and cost inflation, federal funding for first nations K to 12 education should have grown at 6.3% per year. However, the Conservatives have continued to cap funding at 2% per year.
At the same time, provincial funding for education from kindergarten to grade 12 has increased at a rate of over 4% since 1996.
This has created a funding deficit of approximately $2,000 to $3,000 per student per year.
The Assembly of First Nations calculated that the cumulative funding shortfall for first nations education was $620 million in 2009-10 and $1 billion since 2006. The underfunding does not take into account what is needed for basic services like libraries, first nations language training, support services like special education and the development of culturally appropriate curriculum, which are not included in INAC's funding formula for first nations education.
Recent reports by the Senate Standing Committee on Aboriginal Peoples and the Auditor General, as well as the national panel, have all called on the federal government to end its systemic underfunding of first nations education and base funding on real cost drivers.
Even the provinces are calling on the federal government to respect its moral, legal and constitutional responsibilities and provide equal funding. Just yesterday, Don Drummond's report to the Ontario government recommended that the Ontario government should put strong pressure on the federal government to provide funding for first nations on reserve education that at least reaches parity with per student provincial funding for elementary and secondary education.
This past December, the Senate committee likewise concluded in its report, “Reforming First Nations Education” that:
—we believe that a new funding formula, negotiated by the parties and based on real cost drivers, must be developed to replace the current system of contribution agreements.
Just last week, the national panel recommended that the government ensure adequate funding to support a first nations education system that would meet the needs of first nations learners, first nations communities and Canada as a whole, and remarked:
It does seem clear that most First Nation schools do not have sufficient resources to properly support the success of their students.
It is important to acknowledge that both Senate committee and the national panel reiterated that funding alone would not solve the problem. It must be accompanied by steps to build a new first nations education system, centred around a jointly developed first nations education act. For this reason the national panel recommended the following steps be taken immediately in the upcoming budget: a new funding formula, coupled with new standards of accountability for expenditures and results is developed; increase education funding in the 2012-13 school year by an amount equal to the percentage increase for provincial schools; increase teacher and administration compensation to a level equivalent to provincial schools in order to recruit and retain educators; and make an immediate investment in the early literacy programs.
My Liberal colleagues and I agree completely with the need to immediately lift the 2% cap. We will be looking to the upcoming budget to see if the Conservative government is upholding its stated commitment to improve first nations educational outcomes.
The minister's remarks that the national panel's recommendations and timelines are merely “aspirational” have put this commitment into question. This reminds me of the government's position on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which states clearly in article 14:
Indigenous peoples have the right to establish and control their educational systems and institutions providing education in their own languages, in a manner appropriate to their cultural methods of teaching and learning.
Indigenous individuals, particularly children, have the right to all levels and forms of education of the State without discrimination.
States shall, in conjunction with indigenous peoples, take effective measures, in order for indigenous individuals, particularly children, including those living outside their communities, to have access, when possible, to an education in their own culture and provided in their own language.
While the Conservatives endorsed the declaration in November 2010, after initially refusing to do so, the government has since made clear that it views the declaration as, and I repeat, “aspirational”.
In reply to a recent order paper question I submitted, the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development wrote that Canada endorsed the declaration without the intention of creating legally binding obligations and that the declaration did not give rise to any requirement to undertake specific reforms. I surely hope the minister's use of the term “aspirational” does not indicate that the government intends for first nations education reform to befall the same fate as the declaration.
Getting back to the need for a funding reform, Liberals also strongly support the recommendation that any new funding formula must abandon the old model of grants and contributions in favour of multi-year, statutory funding based on real costs that is predictable and sustainable. This would not only respect first nations jurisdiction and the government-to-government relationship between the Crown and first nations, but would undoubtedly create stability and improve outcomes.
There is also a need for dedicated funding for first nations on reserve educational infrastructure. The impetus from Shannen's Dream was a struggle for Attawapiskat to secure its funding for a new school to replace the existing portables located on the site contaminated by a spill of over 50,000 litres of diesel fuel. While the federal government repeatedly issued tenders for the construction of a new school in Attawapiskat after years of delay, there are 100 other communities with similar needs. Without appropriate infrastructure funding, the gap will surely remain.
There have also been recommendations to create an accountability and reporting framework to assess improvements, a national commission to support education reform and improvements and the creation of regional first nations educational organizations.
Today, as this House discusses the first nations people's rights to education, we must remember that the objective of investing in education is not simply to make aboriginal communities self-sufficient, but also to bolster the performance of the Canadian economy in its entirety.
Canada is facing a critical skilled labour shortage, which will get worse over time. The first nations can and must play a leading role in alleviating this shortage, but only if we work together.
The Centre for the Study of Living Standards noted that raising the education levels and market performance of the first nations to equal those of other Canadians would contribute $401 billion to GDP, increase government revenue by $5.8 billion and reduce government spending by $8.4 billion over 25 years.
Access to quality education, particularly in northern or remote communities, means that more aboriginal people will be able to participate in the development of natural resources and in other projects.
Liberals have recognized both the right to education and the economic imperative of education. We have strongly supported the need to work in consultation and partnership with first nations to dramatically increase the level of education attainment.
Our party collaborated with aboriginal people to create the Kelowna accord, which among other things provided $1.8 billion in new targeted funding for education over five years in order to raise first nations outcomes to a level equal to the rest of Canada.
While today's debate is largely about first nations K-12 on-reserve education, we also need to address first nations post-secondary education as well as the barriers facing Métis and Inuit in achieving better educational outcomes.
In terms of post-secondary education, the 2% cap on the post-secondary students support program is a significant barrier to increasing the number of status Indian and Inuit students receiving a post-secondary education.
The need for more investment in post-secondary education is clear. In 2006, only 8% of aboriginal people had a university diploma as opposed to 23% of the general population.
In addition to post-secondary education, I learned in a recent meeting with the Association of Canadian Community Colleges that there is a great demand for additional investment in academic upgrading programs so that aboriginal Canadians who have not graduated from high school are able to do so later in life.
Regarding Inuit education, the recently released national strategy on Inuit education report “First Canadians, Canadians First” identifies the factors behind the Inuit education gap and recommendations for the way forward.
The federal government also needs to work collaboratively with its provincial and territorial counterparts to ensure that there are Métis-specific educational programs.
Before I conclude my remarks, I would like to share with members a letter written by a young first nations boy named Wesley, who contributed to “Our Dreams Matter Too”, an alternate report from the Shannen's Dream Campaign to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child on the occasion of Canada's third and fourth periodic reviews. Wesley wrote:
I'm writing this letter to you as a young native man with something to say about my education. I have attended kindergarten, elementary, and high school on reserve and I am aware of the differences between the education that I have received and the education that non-aboriginal, off-reserve students have received. The lack of funding is a concern, the lack of resources is a concern, but the lack of cultural content in our school is the biggest concern for me.
If we had more funding, there would be more possibilities to include cultural activities. If we had a better sense of culture, we would be more confident, which would lead to success in life.
I would like to see native aboriginal students treated and funded the same as any other non-aboriginal students because we are all students, we are all human, we are all equal and should be treated as such.
I would urge all members to support today's motion. We have lost six very long years in improving the educational outcomes for aboriginal students in Canada, but it is never too late. We know what must be done. All that is left is political will to do not only what is right in terms of fairness and equity, but what is right in terms of securing Canada's economic, social and cultural future. Ending the underfunding of aboriginal education is where we must begin.