Madam Speaker, I will be sharing my time with the member for Timmins—James Bay who has been a true advocate on first nations issues.
I am proud to speak to this motion today on a subject that is of vital importance to the people of my riding, the first nations and Canada.
The motion, if I were to sum it up in a word or two, speaks to opportunity. It addresses the nuts and bolts of levelling the playing field for first nations students who are being denied what most of our kids take for granted. It sets a course that would see the benefits of education improve the lives of more first nations people and, by extension, their communities, which can only be described as a very good thing.
What we are debating today comes largely from Shannen's dream. Many members would know that Shannen Koostachin never got to attend what we would call a “normal school”. Her school was closed because it was built on contaminated soil. She received her education in portable trailers that were charitably called “temporary schools”.
Shannen dreamt that she would be able to go to school like all other Canadian kids. It is a simple dream if one thinks about it. Most kids are not dealing with that issue and get to enjoy other dreams. Sadly, Shannen passed away, but not before she brought her dream to prominence and created a great awareness of the challenges she and other first nations students faced. She was extraordinary and all she wanted was what we would call an ordinary school.
This was in Attawapiskat. It is the same community that Parliament was seized with as winter set upon northern Ontario a few months back. Nine years ago, the children there created an Attawapiskat school campaign and have heard promises from three different ministers of Indian Affairs since, none of which ever amounted to a new school.
Sadly, we know that Attawapiskat is not alone. There are many first nations that share similar circumstances. In fact, former auditor general, Sheila Fraser, told us that it would take 28 years to bridge the gap if we did not increase our efforts, which is why New Democrats are making this issue a priority.
For many Canadians, it is difficult to understand how we can have a thoroughly modern country but are unable to deliver the kind of education that makes all the difference in a child's development for a significant portion of our population who live on first nations.
This chronic problem has moved well past pressing and immediate. It could more accurately be described as critical and urgent. There is a cost associated with chronic conditions and, over time, the cost can start to outweigh those of the preventive measures that would put an end to the condition. In this case, the cost is that Canada is being robbed of the benefits that flow from a better educated population. It is short-sighted if we decide that we cannot make the proper investment now.
The Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development is studying land use and sustainable economic development right now. We are hearing a lot about training. The motion today addresses the conditions that are needed to ensure that any training received on reserve has roots set in solid ground. That ground is good education, one that allows a person to be a lifelong learner, able to develop more skills and become a net benefit to themselves, their community, our country and its economy.
If we think about it, this motion dovetails nicely with the agenda set out by the government on its own committee. I hope that other members will come to see it in that way, as well.
I certainly would not want to stand before members and say that there are no success stories among our first nations schools. The shame is that there are not more. The same can be said of any school, it is true, but the challenges faced by educators and students in far too many first nation schools are of a different scale and seem to persist no matter how much goodwill this chamber can muster.
I want to share with the House some of the findings from the report of the national panel on first nation elementary and secondary education for students on reserves. I think it will help focus some of the broader issues that New Democrats are trying to address in our motion.
The report stated that, in 2006, approximately 50% of the on reserve population aged 25 to 34 did not have a high school certificate compared with 10% for other Canadians of the same age. Can anyone believe that? There is an absence of a system for quick assessment and diagnosis of special needs to provide individual learning plans and resources for children with those needs. At least 100 schools are not up to standard in physical facilities and are not safe places for learning.
Those are not findings we should be particularly proud of as parliamentarians. They speak to the challenges that must be addressed and the work we need to undertake. This motion goes a long way in doing some of that.
Who could actually say that they are against ensuring good schools are in place for first nations kids? Who could be against the broader benefits of education or deny basic health and safety to school kids? We would have to be a Scrooge McDuck to say that Canada should not make this investment and make it a priority.
I read something as I prepared for this debate. It was written by Lorna Williams on the subject of Indian control of Indian education and it captured the benefits of education in a nutshell. She wrote, “Education teaches more than the required curriculum. It teaches hard work, persistence, self-discipline, consistent effort, responsibility, co-operation, commitment, mutual respect and tolerance”.
Those are certainly qualities we would like to see our children have. How could it be any different for parents on reserves across Canada?
I will take a moment to tell the House about a constituent I met shortly after I was first elected. Her name is Eden Beaudin and she lives in the M'Chigeeng First Nation on Manitoulan Island. When she was nine, Eden created the Pegasus Literacy Writing Award to encourage first nations students and other students to write stories of their own and to pursue an education. I have been invited to my friends' award ceremony every year since and think she is a great example of a young girl who is getting a good education on reserve. I want there to be more Edens all across Canada and I think this motion goes a long way to doing just that.
I am hopeful that some of the government's new-found willingness to work with the opposition on reasonable proposals makes its way into the vote on this motion.
I am glad that the parliamentary secretary for Indian affairs has indicated that he will help us pass this motion and use the upcoming budget to provide the funding needed. I believe that is the kind of Parliament Canadians want and this is the kind of motion they would like to see come from this place once in a while.
The challenges are obvious. We have had steady inflationary growth, coupled with population growth on first nations, that erodes current education budgets and allows no headway to be made on well-documented problems.
We know that people with a grade 12 education are twice as likely to be unemployed, receive social assistance, engage in anti-social or self-destructive behaviour and be involved in the criminal justice system. We know that improving education for first nations will give them opportunities to contribute to the economy and workforce.
We have an idea of the money needed to do all of this work and we should not be afraid to make this good investment in ourselves. We should be proud to be parliamentarians who can say that we did something to really move the chain on the education crisis plaguing our first nations.
Former national chief, Phil Fontaine, posed this question in a 2008 editorial article:
If 88 per cent of all children do not have access to early childhood programs, no money for language education, no funding for libraries, and no money for computers, what does this say about how our country cares about our children's future?
I believe we could pass this motion, include the money needed in the upcoming budget and move on to the next challenge. There are many challenges to address. We are asking a lot of our first nations. We just need to ask the bands that are seized with questions about development on their land.