Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise today to speak to the motion presented by the member from the New Democratic Party. I sat with her on the aboriginal affairs committee for a period of time.
I rise because this issue is very important to me. I probably would not be standing here today if not for the post-secondary program in my community. My wife and I were the first university graduates from our families and we were both the first in our families to graduate from grade 12. If not for the post-secondary program, I honestly and truly really would not be here. The quality of life that my children and my family enjoy today is key. The key to that quality of life has been the support I got from the post-secondary education program.
With both our families coming from poverty and being raised in northern isolated communities, we did not and could not afford the opportunity to attend post-secondary education. I feel that I serve my country and my people much better as a productive member of Canada by having secured an education and by contributing to what needs to be done to make our country even better.
This is what the post-secondary program has done for me, my wife and my kids. My two eldest children are now going to university as well. I know that they both are going to be a tremendous success and will continue to contribute to their community, their province and their country in the way that I hope I am doing in the role I am enjoying today as a member of Parliament in this great House of Commons.
When I look back at my situation and the situations back home, this is the aspiration of many first nations, Métis and Inuit youth in this country: to secure an education and to secure the support, because many of my people, whether they are first nations, Métis or Inuit, unfortunately find themselves in a situation where poverty is a daily reality. Education is the key to being able to rise from that poverty, as the parliamentary secretary spoke about and as my hon. colleague from Nanaimo—Cowichan and many others have spoken about.
Having grown up in a community where poverty and such things are unfortunately the norm, we are starting to see a change. We are starting to see an emerging reality where there is a positive attitude, where people can see a light at the end of the tunnel. One of the biggest ways to support achieving that new pinnacle or that next level, moving out of poverty, is by securing that education.
I agree with the parliamentary secretary that the K to 12 system is key to this, but we cannot ignore post-secondary today, and I will speak a bit more to that as we move on.
For the most part, aboriginal people have existed on the margins of this great country. I will speak very briefly about three modern phases of aboriginal-state relations and I will put into context why post-secondary funding and institution support funding are key today.
From shortly after the world war ended until about 1969, aboriginal people were in their communities. Governments knew we were there, but there was never any response unless there was a crisis. Until a crisis occurred, the government response was usually ad hoc. There was no real resolution in the short, medium or long term. It was just an ad hoc crisis. That is the name of that phase. It was just an ad hoc crisis relationship between the aboriginal peoples of this country and the state.
Something changed in 1969. The spark that caused an upwelling within the aboriginal community was the issue we are talking about today: education. The white paper was introduced in 1969. One of the keys in that document, aside from language that our people did not like, was that in order for us to be contributing members of Canadian society, we needed to access post-secondary education, or our education system needed improvement.
That launched the next phase. Aboriginal people were tired of being marginalized. It was only in recent memory that they were able to hire lawyers and able to leave the reserves to shop or do anything. They needed a permit from the Indian agent. They all still remember not being able to vote until just recently. Coming out of that phase into the next phase, they challenged, stood up and wanted their rights recognized. The key issue that arose at that point was the Indian control of the Indian education document that came out in 1972.
From about 1970 until the early 1990s, it was very much a phase where aboriginal state relations were best characterized as confrontational. Aboriginal people used the courts to identify, protect and advance their rights. Unfortunately, blockades and other events occurred in Oka and Ipperwash where lives were lost. This was not a very positive time in that relationship phase from the early seventies to the mid-nineties.
However, out of that came some clarity. The Supreme Court, the Federal Court and the provincial courts said that enough was enough. They said that there were enough case law and decisions that the government and the first nations, Métis and Inuit people should use to guide the next stage of the relationship. They told all parties to take those tools and use them as a framework to establish a new relationship between Canada's aboriginal people and Canada.
With RCAP in 1993, we began to see a bit of a change in the relationship that began as an ad hoc crisis. It was “we know you're there but we really don't care if you're there” attitude. It was a phase where there was confrontation. The early nineties started with a more collaborative approach, in part fuelled by RCAP. We saw an increase in the devolution of programs to aboriginal communities. We saw over 100 self-government tables spring up across the country.
What we saw from the nineties to now was an emerging consensus that we were here to stay in this country and that we all needed to work together. We needed to build on the rights that were there. We needed to put them within the Canadian context so we could be Canadian together.
Having been a chief at the time that the Kelowna accord was negotiated, the Kelowna was the high-water mark in that relationship. The political accords signed between the first nations, the Métis and the Inuit were key documents which spelled out how the Government of Canada should proceed in its relationship with first nations, Métis and Inuit people to discuss issues of mutual concern, such as post-secondary education, housing, economic development, health and so on.
Unfortunately, that high-water mark was erased. What concerns me today is that we are starting to see a relationship going back to the middle phase, a phase that nobody wants. Certainly the first nations, Métis and Inuit people do not want to go back to that more confrontational phase after they have invested blood, sweat and tears to get to the relationship where collaboration ruled the day.
The number one priority achieved with the Kelowna accord and the political accords was to break the back of poverty in aboriginal communities. That had to be the number one pressing issue we had to address. Having said that, I am concerned that we are moving backward after achieving so much.
That is characterizing a bit of where we are at. It helps to set a context. I want to speak about aboriginal people themselves. I do not know how many of us in this House understand that 50% of the aboriginal population is under the age of 18 for the most part, for sure under the age of 20. In communities in my riding, 50% are under the age of 18. That represents potential that cannot go wasted, a potential that, if we mobilize this young population properly, could help break the back of the poverty that I spoke about earlier. This is a population we cannot ignore.
Yes, $305 million were talked about but I, respectfully, wholeheartedly disagreed with the parliamentary secretary's comment that the money could be spent in a better way. Sure, that could probably happen, but there is not enough there to meet the demand we have today. Any money can be spent in a more appropriate way but it is important to point out that what the parliamentary secretary and the government ignore is that government has not provided the infrastructure for proper data collection to occur.
We then have irrational numbers that people pick and choose and use against each other. The fact is that today we have the highest number of young people that we have ever seen in the history of the country who need support to go to post-secondary education because, unfortunately, many of them living in poverty. Start of story, end a story.
Therefore, we need that investment, they need that investment and Canada needs that investment today.
I am also concerned about some of the messaging coming from the government side that aboriginal people are to blame for the mess they are in. I think it is absolutely critical to understand that government policies, not necessarily just the Conservative government, but the past government, have forced aboriginal people, more particularly first nations people, to implement policies that discriminate against their own. Therefore, we have discrimination between on reserve and off reserve, between men and women, between children with disabilities and children without and between what status one was born with under the Indian Act membership code and what one was not born with.
It is those policies that have contributed to painting a real negative picture because people do not understand. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, which is what we have across the floor. It is that little knowledge about the realities that gets assembled to point the finger specifically at aboriginal people for the situation they find themselves in. That is what concerns me the most.
It must be understood that aboriginal people across the country are out there getting jobs. They are going to work in the morning. They are seeing their kids off to school, registering them, if they can, in minor hockey and minor sports, and they are paying their bills trying to do what Canadians do every day.
However, the future has them worried because the opportunities for success are extraordinarily narrower for aboriginal people than they are for the average Canadian because of the poverty they find themselves in.
What concerns me is that we see the media and many others profess that the sins of the aboriginal people are their own. However, they go too far when they say that. We have people who confuse the culture of poverty with the culture of the aboriginal people. The culture of poverty does not discriminate between the colour of our skin. Poverty wreaks havoc in one's life. Sometimes I get concerned with the messaging from all sectors of Canada that confuse the two and say, “It's your fault that you're in the situation that you're in”.
The good news in the aboriginal community is that we are seeing some of the highest rates of graduation from grade 12 in the history of this country and some of the highest rates of graduation from post-secondary institutions in this country. We are seeing the highest rates of business development, new businesses, successful businesses being developed in aboriginal communities by aboriginal people in this country that we have never seen before. It is unprecedented.
There is good news out there and I would like all members of the House to take the time to find out about that good news because it is simply too easy to find out the bad. When we confuse the bad with the message of connecting cultural poverty with the culture of aboriginal people, we are doing a huge disservice to aboriginal people and to Canadians in general. There is good news out there and there is a tremendous and positive amount of things happening.
Where is Canada at? This country is going through an economic boom in many sectors but mostly in the resource sector. Economic activity in the resource sector typically occurs near aboriginal communities. That economic activity provides the opportunity for skilled jobs in many different areas. It provides an opportunity for business development. When we talk about this economic boom in the resource sector, trades, professional training, management training, all these things become available. Skilled labour is needed within the mines or in whatever the resource activity. There are joint venture partnerships in business, partnerships in general and sole ownership. Opportunities present themselves. We need to look at where we are today and line up the resources to capitalize on the youthful population.
Canada is experiencing a labour shortage. Baby boomers are retiring at an alarming rate. Within the next five years I hear that up to 50% of teachers in the Canadian Teachers' Federation will be retired. We are seeing similar numbers in the nursing profession, doctors and in the trades. One just needs to look at the cost of building a house in Saskatoon now.
We have a tremendous opportunity before us and we have the circumstances lining up in the best possible way. The economic boom, the labour shortage and the healthy state of the country's fiscal capacity all line up to state very clearly that if we see investing in post-secondary education as an investment, we will see a huge payback to this country in the form of increased productivity and, at the end of the day, we would begin to break the back of poverty.
Investment in post-secondary training for our aboriginal youth is an investment in Canada, in the provinces and in rural Canada even more today as we stand here but, more important, it provides the opportunity to break the back of poverty.
I will now switch gears and talk about student funding. The parliamentary secretary mentioned some numbers a few minutes ago. A 2% cap on post-secondary funding was implemented in 1996 and it has prevented thousands of first nations students from attending post-secondary education just in that short few years. In 2007 and 2008, at least 2,858 students, first nations students in particular, will be denied access to post-secondary funding.
Since 2001, that is 13,000 students. Think about what 13,000 young people, working and contributing to Canada's productivity, would do for their families, their communities and Canada. Instead, unfortunately, many of them are still in their communities collecting social assistance because there are very few jobs. The cost of doing nothing is huge.
The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples said that by 2016, if we maintain the status quo, it will cost government 47% more. That is a drawdown on Canada's productivity. Instead, if we invested we would see an increase in Canada's productivity.
This response today is extremely disappointing. It fails first nations youth who aspire to pursue their dreams of post-secondary education by not investing in the youth to ensure their success. We are seeing the government off-loading some of its fiduciary responsibility to the provinces. First nations, Métis and Inuit institutions are extremely successful but they need investment.
The government's response to the report of the Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, “No Higher Priority: Aboriginal Post-Secondary Education in Canada”, is a complete, wholehearted, huge disappointment. I could not express it in words, from the phone calls and the correspondence I get from across the country. People are very disappointed that it is abandoning our youth.