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House of Commons Hansard #82 of the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was children.

Topics

Opposition Motion—Education for First Nation childrenBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

11:15 a.m.

Conservative

Greg Rickford Conservative Kenora, ON

Madam Speaker, typically lob questions come from this side of the House, but in this particular case I have been given a second gift by the third party.

If we asked Paul Martin at this very moment whether in his 13 years as a finance minister and his subsequent brief period as prime minister, enough had been done on this particular file, I think he would admit that it had not. This I say with the greatest of respect I can muster for him. The Kelowna accord was agreed on the eve of the third party being put out of power by Canadians across the country, which I think was a strong signal that its policies in this regard had not worked and did not work.

I had the unique experience of living in isolated first nations communities during that time period. Therefore, with some credibility I can say that the frameworks we are working together with now depend on good relationships with first nations leadership and our provincial partners.

Opposition Motion—Education for First Nation childrenBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

11:15 a.m.

Liberal

Carolyn Bennett Liberal St. Paul's, ON

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.

Opposition Motion—Education for First Nation childrenBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

11:35 a.m.

NDP

Alain Giguère NDP Marc-Aurèle-Fortin, QC

Madam Speaker, if the education system for first nations improved each time a speech was given on the topic, they would have the best education system in the world.

That is not the problem. The problem is not our speeches and our intentions, but the results obtained. No results have ever been obtained. This is not a recent issue.

For 25 years, the first nations education system has been underfunded, and everyone is responsible. We are all responsible. We have not succeeded in convincing people that when budget cuts have to be made, they should not affect education. I am not pointing the finger at any person or party in particular, but I would like to know today whether the talk will be followed by action. For once, can we drop the neo-liberal talk and get the job done?

Opposition Motion—Education for First Nation childrenBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

11:35 a.m.

Liberal

Carolyn Bennett Liberal St. Paul's, ON

Madam Speaker, I would like to thank the hon. member for his remarks.

It is very important that we stop laying blame and start looking toward the future for the children of our country, who are so important. I think and I hope that the March budget will include investments in aboriginal children and students.

Enough already; it has been six years and things only have become worse. It is time to push reset, look to the future, and make sure that the discrimination stops.

Opposition Motion—Education for First Nation childrenBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

11:35 a.m.

Kenora Ontario

Conservative

Greg Rickford ConservativeParliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development

Madam Speaker, we appreciate the ex post facto wisdom of the member. However, the reality is that six years ago, in addition to water and sewer matters on reserve, health program delivery and its infrastructure and, as we are speaking thematically today, education were a mess. Hundreds of schools either needed to be severely rehabilitated or replaced. Some communities needed their first school. When I became an MP, there was one school that had burned and had not been replaced by the previous government.

Is the member willing to concede that over the 13 years the Liberals were in power, hundreds of schools had been neglected and there was not an objective framework to prioritize the replacement and rehabilitation of those schools?

Opposition Motion—Education for First Nation childrenBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

11:35 a.m.

Liberal

Carolyn Bennett Liberal St. Paul's, ON

Madam Speaker, what I will acknowledge is that our government realized that the system was not working and that there needed to be a partnership involving first nations, Inuit and Métis communities, the provinces and territories, and the federal government. We worked for 18 months on a plan called the Kelowna accord. We booked $5 billion for that accord in that fall's economic statement. I know the current government has torn up that accord and pretends it never existed. It has removed it from the website even though it can be accessed on the Saskatchewan website. We have had six lost years.

I am prepared to say to the member that we will look forward now but we want to know that there will be money in the budget to do the kind of infrastructure and education rebalance that was in the Kelowna accord.

Opposition Motion—Education for First Nation childrenBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

11:40 a.m.

NDP

Charlie Angus NDP Timmins—James Bay, ON

Madam Speaker, I was very pleased to hear my colleague speak to this issue, but I am concerned about the issue of six long years. Never let it be said in the House that I have given the Conservatives a break on anything, but we are talking about 100 lost years. Anybody who is my age or older who is a first nation and was taken from his or her family and put in the residential schools, we apologized for that two years ago. Anybody younger than I am was put in those federal schools which were basically dumps with substandard education. Then the people were turned over to band schools without funding.

We are seeing an accumulation of decades of systemic negligence and abuse that has gone all the way through Indian Affairs where the reports have sat on desks. This was never a priority until children made it a priority. That is what makes today's motion different.

Rather than go back and forth as to how we got here, Shannen's dream talks about the necessary steps of going forward. Can we as a Parliament in this day and age rectify the 100 years of abuse of first nations children and say this is the beginning when we start to march forward?

Opposition Motion—Education for First Nation childrenBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

11:40 a.m.

Liberal

Carolyn Bennett Liberal St. Paul's, ON

Madam Speaker, I should have acknowledged the member in my remarks. I meant to, but I will take this time to say that his tireless work on this file in working with Shannen toward the dream is really admirable. It is the type of work that parliamentarians need to be doing.

Today's debate regarding Shannen's dream is an opportunity for all parties to come together to rectify, as the member said, 100 years of doing things badly. I hope the member understands that we had such hope in the fall of 2005, until his party took us down, that we could move on the investments that took place in the accord after that 18 months of work. We have to go forward together—

Opposition Motion—Education for First Nation childrenBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

11:40 a.m.

NDP

The Deputy Speaker NDP Denise Savoie

Order. There are many members rising and I would like to give them the opportunity to ask questions.

The hon. member for Prince Albert.

Opposition Motion—Education for First Nation childrenBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

11:40 a.m.

Conservative

Randy Hoback Conservative Prince Albert, SK

Madam Speaker, this is such a timely debate. It is unfortunate that this debate did not happen many years ago. When I look back at history, we need to refocus our talk on the kids. This is important for them. We want to make sure that kids get the proper education they deserve in a fashion that is accountable and bankable.

We have had a situation in the past where the government just threw money at the problem. The Liberal government would close its eyes, throw money at the problem and think that it had a clear conscience. When there was another problem, it would just throw money at it and its conscience would be clear. That was the Liberals' attitude toward this whole file throughout the decades. They would close their eyes and throw money at it. They would not worry about accountability or where the money was going. They would not worry about whether it actually got to the kids for their education. They would just throw money at it. That does not work.

The member would recognize that those types of policies are from bygone days. We need policies that work with the first nations people directly, that actually achieve a goal in partnership with first nations. Will the member not recognize that throwing money at everything does not work? Accountability, and more importantly, partnerships with first nations are what is needed to achieve the required results for the kids so that they can participate in the economy in the future. It has to be done in co-operation with first nations with accountability and a process that achieves results.

Opposition Motion—Education for First Nation childrenBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

11:40 a.m.

Liberal

Carolyn Bennett Liberal St. Paul's, ON

Madam Speaker, I will be the first one to admit that the paternalism of the past has not worked at all. The process in the Kelowna accord was to build from the bottom up with first nations, Inuit and Métis in order to build a system of accountability that would work, was implementable and of their own design. That accord provided for a first nations auditor general. There were real targets but there was also the necessary money. The member for Timmins—James Bay would admit that there had not been money put in place for a school or for infrastructure.

We cannot pretend that if we make a wish and sprinkle Tinker Bell dust that everything will be better. It requires serious investments and serious strategies: what, by when, and how will all first nations children--

Opposition Motion—Education for First Nation childrenBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

11:45 a.m.

NDP

The Deputy Speaker NDP Denise Savoie

Order. The hon. member for Saanich—Gulf Islands for the last question, but it must be very brief, 30 seconds.

Opposition Motion—Education for First Nation childrenBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

11:45 a.m.

Green

Elizabeth May Green Saanich—Gulf Islands, BC

Madam Speaker, I want to make it clear that I plan to vote in favour of today's motion. The treatment of children in first nations communities is scandalous. They have a right to a decent education.

My question for the member for St. Paul's is very direct and very brief. What does she believe it will take to see this legacy of shame end once and for all?

Opposition Motion—Education for First Nation childrenBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

11:45 a.m.

Liberal

Carolyn Bennett Liberal St. Paul's, ON

Madam Speaker, the exciting thing of having Cindy Blackstock of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society and the brilliantly articulated Shannen's dream, is that people have been thinking about these things for a long time. It is up to us to listen, to provide the appropriate resources and then to work with the first nations people on the ground to make sure that we are always re-evaluating in terms of investments and results. If more money is required to kickstart this out of the darkness, then we need to have a commitment that it will happen with stable, predictable funding that first nations can count on so that they can plan in the same way that other communities do in this country.

Opposition Motion—Education for First Nation childrenBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

11:45 a.m.

NDP

Carol Hughes NDP Algoma—Manitoulin—Kapuskasing, ON

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.

Opposition Motion—Education for First Nation childrenBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

11:55 a.m.

Kenora Ontario

Conservative

Greg Rickford ConservativeParliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development

Madam Speaker, I thank the member for her contributions. It is great to work with her on the standing committee and to have a partner from northern Ontario.

I agree with her assessment that important pre-conditions for training and skills beyond secondary education means getting a good education on reserve. I appreciate organizations like SLAMMB in Sioux Lookout and Wahsa that does upgrading with first nations communities, helping to overcome some of the geographic barriers that are posed for adult learners.

As a standard for moving forward with education that is on par, and I am not asking about the resource component here, but does she agree that the province plays an important role in raising up the standard? We have seen some principals in some of the communities do their best to introduce testing so that grade 12 students have a good chance to start a college or university education. However, is the province an important part of that process with respect to achieving standards after high school?

Opposition Motion—Education for First Nation childrenBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

February 16th, 2012 / 11:55 a.m.

NDP

Carol Hughes NDP Algoma—Manitoulin—Kapuskasing, ON

Madam Speaker, of course the provinces play an important role in education. On this matter in particular, we need to ensure there is proper consultation with first nations with respect to their needs for education. If they believe that is working in conjunction with the provinces, then I think they will take those necessary steps.

The issue at hand here is that education funding from not only this government but past governments, both Liberal and Conservative, have continued to fail first nations.

Chief Shining Turtle, from White Fish River First Nation, indicated that the government had not provided an increase in funding since 1988. He goes on to say:

All stages of First Nation education require attention and support. As the fastest growing population in Canada and as confirmed by countless studies, enhancing investments in First Nation post secondary education is a critical requirement that will return significant dividends to both First Nation and Canadian societies and economies, as stated in the Report of the Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development (2007).

He said that in a letter he wrote to the Prime Minister on February 19, 2010.

Opposition Motion—Education for First Nation childrenBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

Noon

NDP

Linda Duncan NDP Edmonton Strathcona, AB

Madam Speaker, I can speak personally to the fact that the member is a stalwart member of Parliament speaking on behalf of first nations rights and interests, and it is an honour to work with her. I promise to finally get to her communities.

We have been reviewing, in our aboriginal affairs committee, discussions about economic opportunities for first nations people. We just heard this week from Regional Chief Toulouse from Ontario expressing concern about the failure to deliver on treaty rights and entitlements and the inability to actually benefit from resource development, which would help them to have the resources to educate their children. Would the member like to speak to that?

Opposition Motion—Education for First Nation childrenBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

Noon

NDP

Carol Hughes NDP Algoma—Manitoulin—Kapuskasing, ON

Madam Speaker, Regional Chief Toulouse has certainly been working very hard with our first nations communities in addressing treaty rights. Until that is dealt with, I think we will continue having these challenges.

I will quickly reiterate a statement that Chief Angus Toulouse made when he appeared before the standing committee. It is actually included in the “Reforming First Nations Education: From Crisis to Hope” report that was tabled. He was talking about the funding caps. He said:

The impacts of this cap can be felt everywhere, from antiquated education facilities, to day-to-day classroom operations, to the lack of resources available to fully develop and sustain First Nation structures that provide second and third level supports.

They have been saying over and over again that this is the issue that needs to be dealt with and over and over again Liberal and Conservative governments have failed to deliver.

Opposition Motion—Education for First Nation childrenBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

Noon

NDP

Charlie Angus NDP Timmins—James Bay, ON

Mr. Speaker, it is a great honour to speak to Shannen's Dream motion, representing the great people of the Timmins—James Bay region where Shannen Koostachin was born. Today in Fort Albany is the great moon gathering, where all the Cree communities will come together. I would like to point out that tonight in Fort Albany the great band Tragically Hip will be performing because it has been inspired by the young people of the James Bay coast.

This is a historic moment in Parliament and for Canada. This is the first motion that has been drive by children. The reason we are debating this issue is because children across the country have recognized their brothers and sisters have been denied basic education rights. This is about putting children first. I cannot think of another instance where school children in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Ontario and across western Canada could tell every member in Parliament about what Shannen's Dream means. They know it, they have been living it and they have been inspired by the story of Shannen Koostachin. This is a historic opportunity.

It is also an extremely important time for parliamentarians because of all the rock throwing that has gone on in the House and all the blame that has happened. It is our job to fight with each other, but there are occasions when, as a nation, we are called to rise to something greater. That moment came for me when members in the last Parliament gathered for the apology regarding the residential schools. I remember standing in the House on that historic day, wondering who was going to apologize to this generation of children.

That question has remained unanswered until perhaps today with the adoption of Shannen's Dream, not just the idea of Shannen's Dream but the actual principles that have been articulated about the need to close funding gaps, to ensure there is ring fencing around capital projects so we can start to build schools and ensure that there are adequate teacher-student class size ratios, just like every other child in our country. If we agree to that as parliamentarians, we are taking a historic step forward. I can tell everyone that the children are watching.

I would like to tell the House a bit about Shannen Koostachin. George Stroumboulopoulos picked five teenage girls in history who kicked butt. I know that is probably not a parliamentary expression, but George Stroumboulopoulos' words were even tougher. He picked Joan of Arc, Anne Frank, Mary Shelley, Buffy the vampire slayer, and I am not sure why but my kids say that has a lot of street credibility, and he picked Shannen Koostachin as number one. That is an extraordinary achievement for a child who came from the impoverished community of Attawapiskat.

Shannen did not want to make history. She might have liked to make history, but she did not set out to be a hero. She wanted to be on a volleyball team. She wanted to have a locker. She wanted to write notes in the classroom. She had a dream that she could have what she called “a comfy school”.

I once walked with Shannen in Cobalt, Ontario at little St. Patrick Catholic School, a tiny school. It would not even be on the radar of what people think of as a proper school today, but it has a nice, comfy little feel. Shannen kept disappearing on me. I went to look for her and I found her looking in a classroom window. I asked her if something was wrong and she said, “I wish I had my entire life over so I could go to a school like this”. At age 13, she had realized that opportunity was slipping away from her and that might never come back. To see a sense of urgency through a child's eyes, the sense that if he or she does not get an education, that the child will never be better off, is deeply disturbing.

We have known about the underfunding. We knew about study after study that sat at the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development for years. It just was not a priority. Nobody in the House thought it was a priority that children were suffering, that there was substandard education and children were being treated with systemic discrimination based on their race and the fact that they lived on reserve. It was never a priority until one child said, “Enough”. When Shannen Koostachin started to fight, other children came with her. She has been called by many young people across Canada as the Rosa Parks of this generation, the one who said, “Enough is enough. We don't want to spend another day sitting at the back of the school bus”.

This can be about the blame game. This can be about the 100 and some horror stories that have been mentioned. I have been to communities where I do not know how the children can go to school in the morning and sit in those cold substandard classrooms. To me, that is a sign of real heroes. We could talk about all of that or we could talk about how we will actually fulfill the obligation of this great nation.

Every now and then I hear people say, “When is enough enough? When have we done our bit with first nations?” We are on a path together. We are in a relationship together. It has been an abusive and dysfunctional relationship, but we will continue on in this relationship together.

It is incumbent upon the members of the House of Commons to stand today and say that we as Canadians believe in the fundamental principle that every child has a right to an education. Every child has the right to guaranteed access to education. A right to an education is not just access to a school. A right to an education is a more fundamental principle. Children should not have to know what that right is when they walk in that school. Just like any child, whether in Timmins, Red Deer or any other community in the country, their rights are encoded in law, that class-to-size-ratios are guaranteed and that there is a plan for children with dyslexia, autism or special needs because they only have one childhood. It is too precious a thing to waste. Under the bureaucratic indifference of successive governments, we have squandered the lives and potential of tens of thousands of wonderful young aboriginal children who have never been given what they should have been given.

Shannen's Dream motion was born the moment of her horrible death on May 31, 2010, on Highway 11, just south of Temagami. It was the worst day of my life when I found out we had lost a youth leader. National education leaders, national labour leaders, Cindy Blackstock and others called me to say that we had to carry this on. Young Chelsea Edwards from Attawapiskat called me. Her community and the whole of James Bay area was devastated that we had lost this young leader. They said that we had to fulfill what Shannen started.

The language of Shannen's Dream was crafted out of that tragedy, out of that sense of grief. We sat down with members of the Assembly of First Nations, the Canadian Public School Boards Association, the trustees and teachers to ask what steps were necessary to guarantee that this generation of children would not be squandered.

Shannen would be 17 now. She had a dream. I think she wanted to be a lawyer on some given days and I am not sure what she wanted to be on other given days, but she wanted to get an education more than life itself. That was her passion and her belief. She used to tell me that it was not about her anymore; it was about the younger brothers and sisters. I think of those younger brothers and sisters in my communities, in Kashechewan, where we do not have a proper school, and in Attawapiskat where the kids still wait for a school. They are looking to the House of Commons.

This is a moment of unity, not just for first nation students but for non-native children from across Canada who have reached out to say that if we work together, we can bring change.

Here we are in the House of Commons. This is our moment. I call upon all parliamentarians to say that this is our time to apologize for what has gone on and that this is the way we will move forward as a country. I would like to see the support of every member in the House as we stand for Shannen's Dream.

Opposition Motion—Education for First Nation childrenBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

12:10 p.m.

Kenora Ontario

Conservative

Greg Rickford ConservativeParliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development

Mr. Speaker, having a neighbouring riding in northern Ontario and sharing communities along the James Bay and Hudson Bay coast, I appreciate the member's experience and perspective in this regard.

With all due respect to Shannen, I can assure him that there are a number of children and great first nation leaders in northern Ontario who have certainly been a motivation for me and other parliamentarians to ensure that new schools and new training facilities are being built. For example, Pikangikum and Confederation College is working in co-operation with the community for the exciting Whitefeather forest management program, one of the rare relationships that will provide important training. As a signatory to the Indian residential school agreement, I am hopeful there will not be a need for an apology.

My question for the hon. member is this. Outside of a pure education, does the member agree with me that there are other things that are important, particularly given the vastness of northern Ontario, that add to a child's education, like communications, access to radio and newspapers through Wawatay? Does he support the commitment that our government has made to ensure these kinds of communications reach out to those communities and provide important forums and a life-learning forum that is also important to getting a good education?

Opposition Motion—Education for First Nation childrenBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

12:10 p.m.

NDP

Charlie Angus NDP Timmins—James Bay, ON

Mr. Speaker, I thank my hon. colleague for mentioning Wawatay Radio, which is the connecting point for all of our northern communities that otherwise are not able to, in some ways, communicate. We need to see the digital infrastructure built.

The fundamental issue comes down to meeting the existing provincial standards. For years, Indian affairs has been telling children to go out and meet the provincial standards if they want to pass, but that it is going to fund at the federal rate, build smaller schools than the provincial standards and that it is not going to meet those standards.

Education is the beginning. Fort Albany has a good school that is underfunded, but the sense of hope in those children is remarkable because the school is the centre of that community. Every one of our first nations communities needs to have a school that is the centre point and that is culturally based, like in Fort Albany. The elders come in, sit in a central circle and the young people come in and feed them. There is a sense of community.

That is how we start to heal. That is how we build the opportunities. That is how we will see the immense resources that these communities have to offer the rest of our country and themselves.

Opposition Motion—Education for First Nation childrenBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

12:10 p.m.

NDP

Wayne Marston NDP Hamilton East—Stoney Creek, ON

Mr. Speaker, when it comes to the member for Timmins—James Bay, no one has worked harder for the first nations of our country. I am very proud to be in the House with him.

The remarks I have heard from the parliamentary secretary today are very positive. However, aside from the talk about education, until we reach the point where there is a clear understanding that the institutional discrimination for years has affected the first nations people, until a first nations person has a toilet instead of a pail, until there is no mould or leaky roof in their house and until the foundations are there to support the child at the home level, building all the schools in the world will not work if these needs are not addressed as well.

Would the member for Timmins—James Bay please comment on that?

Opposition Motion—Education for First Nation childrenBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

12:15 p.m.

NDP

Charlie Angus NDP Timmins—James Bay, ON

Mr. Speaker, I am so inspired by the incredible resilience of people in communities in my area, like the people in Attawapiskat, who have hope, who have an incredible belief. They put their belief in their children first.

Today we have to honour that obligation to the children. We need that to be our first step right now. We have many other issues such as mould and housing crises. We can start to deal with those as well, but we need to make that firm commitment to the children. We need to say that as children, their futures are sacred and that the House of Commons will protect the rights of those children.

We have signed international agreements. We should never have aboriginal youth, like those who went to Geneva last week, challenge Canada to live up to that. That is our first job. All the rest will begin if we show the good will to making a difference.

Opposition Motion—Education for First Nation childrenBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

12:15 p.m.

Conservative

David Wilks Conservative Kootenay—Columbia, BC

Mr. Speaker, I thank the House for the opportunity to express my full support for the motion tabled by the hon. member for Manicouagan.

The education of first nations students is of the utmost importance. This government will continue to do its best to improve the educational outcomes of students attending first nations schools.

Education plays a crucial role in preparing individuals for the labour market. A quality education equips a young person with the skills and sensibilities needed to thrive as an adult. There is no question that first nations students should have access to educational opportunities that will help them thrive.

For all young Canadians, education should encourage and inspire them to stay in school. Ultimately, education should enable students to acquire the skills they need to enter and succeed in the labour market and to share fully in Canada's economic opportunities.

The truth is that for many years high school graduation rates among first nations youth have lagged well behind graduation rates among other Canadians. This means that this young and growing segment of the Canadian population is limited in its ability to contribute to and benefit from Canada's economic prosperity. Achieving this goal absolutely depends on improving educational outcomes among first nations students. Unfortunately, there is no easy solution. Many factors contribute to the problem.

Solving such a complex problem requires a multi-faceted strategy developed in partnership with first nations, one that addresses specific factors in a complementary way to inspire overall progress. This is an apt description of this government's strategy for first nations education. While much work remains to be done, I am convinced that this strategy has us on the right track.

My remarks today will focus on a single aspect of the strategy: infrastructure.

First nations own and operate community infrastructure on reserve. As such they are responsible for the operation and maintenance of their schools. They are also responsible for minor renovations.

The Government of Canada also has responsibilities for first nations education infrastructure. Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada plays the lead role in exercising these responsibilities.

The department provides financial and advisory assistance to first nations for the development of school infrastructure on reserve. This assistance takes a number of forms, from investing in projects to building new schools and facilities, to renovating and repairing existing ones, and providing funding for project design and planning.

In the 2010-11 fiscal year, our government's total investment in the building and renovation of schools was $304 million. Since our government came into office in 2006, up to 2010 we have invested approximately $924 million on school infrastructure projects. For the 2011-12 fiscal year, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada plans investments of approximately $198 million.

These amounts reflect the fact that this government appreciates the benefits of safe and productive learning environments for first nations students. To get a better sense of how investment decisions are made, one must have a grasp of a few key programs and processes.

The primary funding vehicle within Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada is the capital facilities and maintenance program. The program invests in four main areas: housing, education, water and waste water systems. It also invests in other community infrastructure, such as roads, bridges and fire protection.

The total annual budget for the program is approximately $1 billion. Investment decisions under the program are guided by four criteria. The first criterion involves addressing immediate concerns related to personal health and safety. The second criterion relates to proactive measures to address potential risks to health and safety. The third criterion involves recapitalization and major maintenance. For example, whether a project would extend the useful operating life of a facility or asset or maintain its original service level. The last criterion pertains to actual and anticipated growth and the adequacy of existing infrastructure vis-à-vis a community's current and emerging needs. School projects, whether for new construction or renovations, are further prioritized at the national level based on health and safety, overcrowding and curriculum requirements.

To manage funding decisions, the program relies on regional five year capital plans. Each investment plan lists specific projects first nations in the region intend to complete as funds become available. Regional investment management boards make the final investment decisions, based on program criteria and relative priorities.

Last year, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada completed a progress report on educational facilities in first nations communities. The report examined the period of April 2006 to December 2010 and provided a valuable summary of recent accomplishments. During the period, 248 school projects were completed with a total value of approximately $415 million. Projects completed during this period included 22 new schools, major renovations to another 22 schools and the construction or major renovation of 20 teacher residences. The list also includes another 184 projects involving minor renovations, the purchase and installation of portable classrooms, and feasibility and design work. Another 100 school projects were still underway, including new schools, major renovations, teacherages, upgrades to mechanical and heating systems, roof repairs and other renovations.

Since the review wrapped up, I am pleased to report that the implementation of the final year of Canada's economic action plan has been successful in the completion of 12 new school construction and renovation projects, an investment of $173 million. As a part of the building Canada plan, $102 million has been allocated from the gas tax fund to build five new and renovate two existing on-reserve schools. Of these, four school projects have been substantially completed and the remaining three projects are progressing well.

Although investment statistics and details of programs and funding processes are essential parts of this government's strategy, they tell only a small part of the story. To get a true sense of the considerable benefits of improvements to on-reserve school infrastructure, one must look closely at individual projects and their impact on communities. Consider a new school that opened last year in British Columbia's Okanagan Valley. The Penticton Indian band's Outma Sqilxw Cultural School is a modern facility built to highlight ancient cultural traditions. The school has already become an important gathering place for the community. Jonathan Kruger, the chief of Penticton Indian Band, says the school means a great deal to the community. During an interview, he described it this way:

...it builds a strong foundation for the future if our children …grow up in a stronger environment….

He further stated:

they’re going to grow up to be healthy…and they’re going to make great decisions and they’re going to do great things.

Schools such as this can help lead to better educational outcomes for first nations children. Better outcomes lead to employment success and personal fulfillment. They create the foundations for strong sustainable communities. This is part of the reason that Canada's economic action plan invested $7 million in this project.

Another new school in British Columbia also promises to improve educational outcomes. In 2011, Ahousaht First Nation opened the Maaqtusiis School with 11 classrooms. The school will provide a safe, comfortable and stimulating environment for students in grades 8 to 12. This government contributed $9 million through Canada's economic action plan and another $3.8 million through the Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada capital facilities and maintenance program.

Last November marked the grand opening of Kistapiskaw Elementary School at Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation in Saskatchewan. A fire destroyed the old school in 2005. The new school will accommodate 250 students, with 170 in grades 1 through 5 and another 80 in kindergarten. Canada's economic action plan contributed $20 million to the project. Our contribution supported the design and construction of the school, roadways, parking lots and playing fields. Investments such as this one provide lasting, sustainable benefits for first nations and help create jobs.

Birch Narrows First Nation built a new, $25 million, comprehensive school last year thanks to investments from our government, the Province of Saskatchewan and the first nation. Before the school was completed, students attended schools outside the community. Chief Robert Sylvester described the impact this way:

Not only will we have input into the instruction our students receive, as parents, we'll have peace of mind knowing they are not having to travel outside the community to get it. This school will also help to enhance our rate of students graduating, which should translate into an increase in the number of students who continue their education beyond Grade 12.

Further east, a major school renovation project in the Innu community of Natashquan, Quebec has already begun to have a positive impact. Thanks to an investment of $9.4 million from the Canada economic action plan, the project replaced several portables at the Uauitshitun School with permanent classrooms. The first nation managed the project. In an interview, Chief François Bellefleur talked about the impact of the project:

This work is excellent news for the community, especially for the students. Natashquan youth deserve to study in a safe, healthy and modern school. In the long run, modernizing the school, especially by building new classrooms, will certainly contribute to the success of our youth.

School infrastructure projects have had similarly positive impacts in several communities in northwestern Ontario. Last November, Wabaseemoong First Nation opened a 16 classroom facility for students of kindergarten through grade 12. The Mizhakiiwetung Memorial School can accommodate up to 460 students. This project was made possible thanks to a $25 million investment under Canada's economic action plan.

In the words of Chief Eric Nelson Fisher:

I look forward to witnessing generations of learners passing through the school and reaching their full potential.

In September last year, North Spirit Lake First Nation in Ontario also opened a new school. Construction was made possible by investing $14.4 from Canada's economic action plan and $1.5 million from the Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada capital facilities and maintenance program.

Chief Rita Thompson had this to say about the project:

The children of North Spirit Lake have a beautiful new school to learn and grow in. This facility will be an asset to our community for current and future generations to come

In speaking about Shannen's dream, I would add that Attawapiskat First Nation, also in Ontario, has begun to plan construction of a new elementary school. This government has set aside funding over the next three years to support that project. The first nation, in partnership with the department, is responsible for managing all aspects of this project, including tendering and selecting contractors. The first two phases of the work plan to build the new school have been completed. The school capital planning study and the detailed design phase were approved on January 25, 2012. The construction phase is ready to move forward. It is anticipated that the school will open in the 2013-14 school year.

I am happy to report that the local member of Parliament for Timmins—James Bay is supportive of this timeframe, having stated in a May 20 Canada Press article that:

—2013 is a good timeline, you couldn’t build a school up there any quicker—

The Government of Canada is encouraged and hopeful that Shannen's dream will continue to have a positive impact on Attawapiskat First Nation, and potentially on other first nations across Canada.

All of these stories emphasize the important link that exists between schools and a first nation, between the bricks and mortar of a school and the hearts and minds of community members.

With more than 400,000 Aboriginal youth projected to enter the labour market by 2020, the Aboriginal population is poised to help meet Canada's future labour market requirements. In order for the young men and women of first nations communities to take full advantage of the opportunities available, they must be equipped with a quality education. That challenge begins with the buildings themselves.

This government will continue to invest in school infrastructure projects in first nations communities as part of our larger strategy to improve educational outcomes. We are committed to working with first nations and interested parties to ensure that first nations children receive a quality education.

I encourage my hon. colleagues to endorse the motion before us and to support the government's efforts to improve educational outcomes in partnership with first nations.