FORMER prime minister Paul Martin slammed the Harper government on Thursday for failing to provide adequate funding for native education and challenged Manitoba’s business leaders to join in the fight to squeeze more money out of the federal treasury.
The former Liberal leader told about 180 delegates attending a one-day summit on Manitoba’s past achievements and future challenges one of the biggest challenges the province faces over the next 15 years is finding a way to get more of its aboriginal youth into the workforce.
And that’s not going to happen unless Ottawa boosts its funding for on-reserve schools, he said.
Martin said in a later interview federal funding for on-reserve schools is 20 to 30 per cent less per student than what the provinces provide for off-reserve schools.
As a result, teachers in on-reserve schools get paid less, teacher turnover rates are high, children with disabilities are receiving little or no help, and most on-reserve schools lack basic amenities such as science labs, he said.
"That’s immoral and it’s also economically dumb," Martin said. "That means these young people aren’t going to be ready for (jobs in) the modern economy."
Martin noted Manitoba, like most provinces, is facing a growing shortage of skilled workers. Its fast-growing aboriginal population represents a huge and largely untapped source for future workers, provided young aboriginals receive the proper education and training.
He said collaborative and co-ordinated lobbying efforts are needed to obtain more federal funding "and (we’re) going to have to get the business community behind it." Martin has at least one of the province’s high-profile business leaders in his corner — Richardson Financial Group Limited CEO Sandy Riley.
Riley was among a who’s who of Manitoba business leaders who attended Thursday’s summit, which was organized by the Business Council of Manitoba. In his presentation, he also lamented the low labour-force participation rate among Manitoba aboriginals, particularly young (15- to 24-year-old) aboriginals.
"Our unique challenge... is how we take advantage of the opportunities the young aboriginal population presents to us," Riley said. "We must do a better job and I think we can."
Riley said the problem isn’t limited to just the low labour-force participation rates. It also includes the high number of aboriginals within the prison system and the living conditions on many of the province’s First Nations.
"I look at what is happening on the northern reserves in this province and it’s a disgrace. It’s a disgrace for all of us," he said. "It’s a real challenge for us and we need to figure out what to do about it."
The aboriginal issue was one of a host of topics that came under scrutiny during the dozen or so panel discussions that were held as part of Thursday’s Manitoba: Past, Present and Future conference. Others included education, taxes and the bottom line, wealth creation and economic development and quality of life.
Riley also touched on the subject of Manitoba Hydro expansion and electricity exports to the United States. He said Hydro development and exports of electrical power to the United States have long been thought of as one of Manitoba’s most valuable assets.
However, he and James Richardson & Sons Ltd. president and CEO Hartley Richardson said the United States’ recent and rapid move toward energy self-sufficiency underscores the need for Manitoba Hydro to pursue more export opportunities within Canada.
Some also questioned the need for Hydro to continue aggressively expanding its generating capacity in northern Manitoba.
However, Dave Chomiak, minister responsible for Hydro, said in a later interview new investment in hydro dams will allow residents and businesses here to continue to enjoy among the lowest electricity rates in North America.
Manitoba is able to attract and retain business because it has the lowest industrial electricity rates in the country and supplies are reliable, he said. At current usage-growth rates, Manitoba will run out of power by 2022 without new construction, he added.
"Hydro isn’t the silver bullet but Hydro is a big part of our future. And we ought to take advantage of the natural advantage we have of having one of the best, in fact the best, power system probably in North America."
— with files by Larry Kusch