Mr. Speaker, I am thankful to have this opportunity to stand in the House to address this important issue and talk about our government's commitment to first nations education.
There has been proof in the House of our government's commitment to ensure that we produce results for first nations children, their families, and the communities that are represented in many of our constituencies. I am proud to represent 32 first nations.
Members on this side of the House recognize that education is a key personal empowerment tool that leads to prosperity. We fully understand that the way for individuals to succeed, for communities to escape poverty and for first nations economies to prosper is to have an educated, skilled and employed population. A strong economy and a good education really go hand-in-hand.
There is no question that our government is committed to ensuring that first nations students enjoy the same opportunities as other Canadians do. First nations students deserve an education that ensures they graduate with the skills that they need to succeed in the jobs of today and that they can fully enjoy the same opportunities everybody else in Canada can.
That is precisely why, in partnership with the Assembly of First Nations, we created the national panel on first nations education last year. The panel criss-crossed the country during the fall of 2011, consulting with first nations leaders, parents, elders, students, teachers, provincial officials and the private sector about how to improve the elementary school experience and the outcomes for first nations students across the country.
We are grateful for the panel. It did tremendous work. Its final report offers ideas to improve educational outcomes for first nations children and youth. We are currently reviewing this report and its recommendations carefully before determining the next steps.
Successive federal budgets further reinforce that this government places a high priority on first nations education. We invest roughly about $1.5 billion on an annual basis to elementary and secondary programs for 117,500 first nations students across our great nation. This investment supports structural service, special education, cultural educational centres and targeted initiatives for first nations students. Band councils and first nations educational organizations manage and deliver these programs and services in some 520 on-reserve schools.
We are also investing $200 million on an annual basis to school infrastructure so first nations children have a safe and healthy environment in which to learn. Construction projects are under way in communities across the country. I know of many in the province that I represent and even in my own constituency. These include new comprehensive schools, such as the one that has been recently opened in Birch Narrows First Nation in Saskatchewan, the new community school in North Spirit Lake First Nation in Ontario and the recently inaugurated Mah-Sos School in Tobique First Nation in New Brunswick. Our government has completed 248 school projects since April 1, 2006.
More important than issuing cheques, we are working in close partnership with first nations communities and the provinces to ensure that every first nations school gets off to a good start. We know that dollars alone will not address the challenges confronting first nations students.
Budget 2008 was an example of this. There was an investment in first nations education, not simply by adding money to existing funding arrangements but by focusing on practical initiatives that would lead to real results in the classroom. The budget launched the reforming first nations education initiative, which set out the foundation for long-term improvements to first nations education.
For instance, our first nations students success program took the tools to strengthen on-reserve education and put it into the hands of local decision makers. The program helps first nations educators plan and make improvements in the three priority areas of literacy, numeracy and student retention. Over 90% of first nations students are now benefiting from these initiatives.
Participating schools develop school success plans tailored to increase efforts in these priority areas. They are supported in developing success plans, conducting student assessments and measuring performance to assess and report on school and student progress. To monitor progress, students are looked at to ensure that they are making progress. Schools implement a student learning assessment process based on provincial jurisdictions and established performance measurement systems. These processes and informed instruction methods help teachers in setting priorities in assessing the planning to increase student success over the long term.
Our government recognizes that language and culture also play an important role in helping first nations students build confidence and self-esteem. These are essential skills and important elements to ensure academic success.
Pride in one's heritage and culture is important in encouraging first nations students to stay in school. Understanding this, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada provides $9.5 million for cultural educational programs, which help to preserve and strengthen aboriginal culture, tradition and language.
Support is also available to first nations through initiatives, such as the new paths program, to allow first nations and their organizations to develop a curriculum for first nations schools, which are culturally relevant to the student population.
There is an additional $5 million that the Government of Canada provides each year under the aboriginal language initiative. It underwrites community-based projects to preserve and revitalize first nations, Inuit and Métis languages.
Beyond these important activities, our government recognizes that deeper structural reforms are needed to provide education that is comparable to that which is provided in the public school systems, but this is not something that we can tackle alone. Improving educational outcomes is a shared responsibility in which governments, communities, educators, families and students all play an important role.
Another of our key reform initiatives is the education partnerships program to increase collaboration among first nations, provinces and Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada so we can collectively increase students' success.
Many first nations schools have operated largely independently, with little connection to one another, or any connection to the provincial systems. As a consequence, these schools are left without some of the essential tools that are needed to improve student outcomes, attain provincial educational standards and ensure students can transition between first nations and provincial schools with no academic penalty.
The Government of Canada believes that co-operation and collaboration among first nations and other governments are essential to provide first nations students with the same advantages that other Canadian children enjoy. These three-way partnerships marry first nation control over local education with new models of accountability for results and stronger links to provincial standards for students and teachers.
The educational partnerships program supports the use of joint action plans where first nations and provincial officials share expertise and services. This approach helps to ensure that first nations students receive comparable instruction and obtain comparable results, whether the classroom is located on reserve or off.
To date, we have reached seven tripartite educational partnerships across Canada and five new tripartite educational memorandums of understanding have been entered into by our government since introducing the reforming first nations education initiative.
Since 2008, these include agreements with first nations and the Governments of New Brunswick, Manitoba, Alberta, Prince Edward Island and a sub-regional agreement with the Saskatoon Tribal Council. There are additional pre-existing tripartite partnerships in Nova Scotia and British Columbia. These tripartite agreements enable first nations communities to provide educational programs with high standards and strategies that reflect their unique first nation cultures and aspirations.
I am happy to report that negotiations are under way to complete many more such agreements. We are close to finalizing a tripartite educational memorandum of understanding with the First Nations Education Council in Quebec as well as with the Labrador Innu in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Equally encouraging, there is a province-wide effort to reach an MOU in Ontario with the Chiefs of Ontario office. Several sub-regional agreements are proceeding well and so too are negotiations with the Yukon first nations. We are especially excited about the work that is taking place in British Columbia, which perfectly illustrates the benefits of the tripartite approach.
In budget 2010, the Government of Canada invested $30 million for comparable education for first nations. We started in B.C., where there is an advanced state of partnership between the province and the First Nations Education Steering Committee.
The committee is an independent society that represents 88 first nations across the province and provides administrative services for first nations school administration. B.C. First nations and FNESC have been working together to establish an educational system that provides support for first nations students, demonstrating their capacity to administer educational programs and services.
On January 27, a new second generation tripartite educational framework agreement was signed by our government in the province of British Columbia and the First Nations Education Steering Committee. Under this agreement, the steering committee will support the delivery of quality education programs and services. This means meeting standards that will allow first nations students to transfer, without academic penalty, at a similar level of achievement between first nations schools and the provincial public schools.
Most promising is that this partnership agreement is accompanied by a new funding model. First nations education funding will be comparable to a similar size and situated school which would be funded in the public system within British Columbia. Progressive steps like these will close the gap in educational outcomes and graduation rates between first nations and other Canadian students.
The tripartite educational framework is an option available to all first nations in a province to help operate their schools. Communities in British Columbia are currently negotiating educational self-government agreements that they will be able sign on to and the framework that will establish the conclusion of the self-government agreements.
I should point out that approximately 21 nations and Inuit communities have opted to negotiate an assumed jurisdiction over education outside the Indian Act as part of a broader agreement or modern treaties covering self-government arrangements and comprehensive land claims.
Our government is determined that first nations students will enjoy the same opportunities as other Canadians. We are providing the funding necessary to make education accessible to individuals and communities. Most important, we are partnering with first nations communities and the provinces to bring about meaningful educational reforms that will lead to lasting student success.
We know that education holds the key to creating a future in which first nations are self-sufficient and prosperous, making their own decisions, managing their affairs and making strong contributions to their communities and the national economy.
I am not suggesting that the initiatives I have outlined today are the entire solution, but there is no question that they are vital steps in the right direction.
There should be no doubt about our government's determination to keep moving forward. We have made it clear with our investments and commitments to productive partnerships that we believe in the value and necessity of education for first nations children and youth. We are ready to do our part and anxious to work with willing partners to achieve better and greater results.
I know that we all agree in the House that first nations children deserve nothing less. With the fastest growing youth population in the country, we want to ensure first nations young people acquire the knowledge and skills that are necessary to be part of the growing Canadian economy and society.
I can assure the opposition that our government will continue to work with first nations partners across Canada, as we have been doing, to deliver tangible and lasting results and ensure that first nations are well positioned to be full participants in a strong Canadian economy.
I just hope that first nations children and youth can count on the support of all parties in the House to work together as we move forward.