SHOULD a child who lives on a First Nation expect and receive the same quality of education, opportunities and resources as a child attending a Manitoba public school?
That's essentially what it comes down to, after you sift through all the jargon about best practices and positive learning outcomes and rationales about competing priorities and budgets and constitutional quibbling over federal and provincial responsibilities.
"We're expected to deliver programs and services with inadequate funding. It's almost designed for us to fail," says Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Ron Evans, who, like First Nations directors of education, says the per-pupil operating grants for reserve schools are several thousands of dollars -- around 25 per cent -- less than provincial public schools.
Anna Fontaine, regional director general for the Prairies for the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) says that, "For the most part, the funds we provide range from $8,500 to $12,000 a student."
That kind of range is on par with the public system which spent $9,910 per student in 2008-2009. Trouble is, those funds don't always reach the classroom. Fontaine is adding up money gathered from a wide variety of grants and funding agencies. Some of that money comes in block grants, and though it is supposedly earmarked for education, chiefs and band councils can spend it on other priorities, such as water, sewage and housing.
"Not all education money goes to education," said Fontaine. "A chief and council, they have a pot of money to deliver programs -- they also have other pressures. We manage our budgets to try and deliver the maximum we can."
Should education funding be transferred separately to bands, designated for education and education only? That's a political question, says Fontaine, not one for a civil servant to address.
She said, though, that it will take more than money to equalize educational opportunity. Ottawa and the First Nations, and the province of Manitoba, need to work together to identify what's actually working and where aboriginal students are succeeding, then apply those services and programs and ideas across the board.
One possibility is virtual learning, delivering some courses online so high school students don't always have to leave their communities to find a public school education in an unfamiliar environment.
That's one of the key ideas in a letter of understanding that the feds, the First Nations and the province recently signed.
I travelled to a sampling of Manitoba First Nations this fall and talked to educators from some others. As you read their stories, I'd like you to keep half a dozen questions in mind:
1. If the Manitoba public school system can offer French immersion, German, Spanish, Hebrew and Ukrainian as credit courses, should children attending First Nations schools receive funding, teacher training and curricular materials so that they can learn Cree, Ojibway or Dakota and learn in those languages?
2.Would parents in the Manitoba public school system accept their children going to school in a metal shed three decades after it had been built as a temporary structure? Would parents in the Manitoba public school system accept their children going to school each day in huts -- not huts as in $250,000 relocatable classrooms attached to a crowded school, but in sheds which constitute the entire school?
3. Should children attending a First Nations school expect a quality education through Grade 12 in their own community, including at a minimum the courses required to get into university, rather than having to spend 10 months living in an unfamiliar town or city in senior high school, boarding with relatives or total strangers?
4.Would parents with children in the public school system in Manitoba accept a school division in which their children did not have access to science labs, a gym, music, art, shops, language programs, an athletic field, a stage, computer labs, a cafeteria or regular maintenance and painting of their walls and floors and doors?
5. Should First Nations schools be expected to provide a quality education in every core subject despite paying teachers $20,000-to-$25,000 a year less than they would make in a public school and with no money available for professional development or benefits?
6. Should a special needs child attending a First Nations school in Manitoba expect regular access to school psychologists, social workers, speech and language pathologists, reading clinicians and other specialists?
Those are the questions. This is the reality.
SIOUX VALLEY DAKOTA NATION
Education director Corey Mini sits in the hut that passes for an administration office across the gravel road from two of the three rundown schools that serve the community's 310 children.
There's the "new school" built in 1987, which has a stunning roof and skylight that's meant from certain angles to look like an eagle. Inside, that stunning roof leaks rain into the gym.
There's the so-called metal school, a low-ceilinged building thrown up in 1981 as a temporary site for three years. Three decades later, it's still in service.
And the high school students? They bus more than 40 kilometres each day into Brandon to the old Fleming School, closed down by Brandon School Division. The two buildings in Sioux Valley house 210 students from nursery to Grade 7, while Fleming -- known unofficially as Sioux Valley High School -- has another 100.
Fleming needs $5 million in capital improvements to change it into a high school, money that Mini says he'll have to find $100,000 at a time, should BSD even be willing to sell.
"It's in rough shape. We're hoping to purchase," said Mini, but he knows that Brandon School Division could get more money for the downtown property from a developer.
Fleming is adjacent to Brandon University, allowing for partnerships and access to campus that would enormously benefit the aboriginal students, as both the University of Winnipeg and the University of Manitoba have done with inner city schools in Winnipeg.
Sioux Valley also had its eye on the school in Alexander, a small town just off the Trans-Canada Highway, a short ride from the reserve. Enrolment had dropped and the Brandon school board was considering closing it. Then, suddenly, the education minister at the time, Peter Bjornson imposed a moratorium on school closings.
"The moratorium hurt us. We could have looked at Alexander as a feasible option," Mini said. "That was kind of a boot in the face for us." Although, he adds, it's a mystery where he could have got the money to buy it.
Sioux Valley children aren't getting the same opportunities as public school students. Not even close. And Mini doesn't spare anyone in his criticism of the system.
He has no use for the Manitoba First Nations Education Resource Centre, just one of many organizations that Mini says he could do without, such as the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs or regional tribal councils -- he says their funding should go directly into the schools.
The federal money to Manitoba's First Nations "is funnelled through the band administration and into the school. Sometimes it finds its way into the school and sometimes it doesn't."
Not surprisingly, Mini says that Indian and Northern Affairs Canada is top-heavy with bureaucrats.
Like other education directors, Mini envies the public school system's ability to levy property taxes to augment provincial operating grants, especially for special needs students: "The money shortfall is always the issue," and not just for buildings.
"We actually had to cut our language program -- it's not funded," he said. "We don't have music. We don't have science labs."
Curtis Gray, a young teacher who came out of Killarney 10 years ago and stayed, is principal of the two school buildings at Sioux Valley.
"The metal school was put here as temporary, three to five years. It's still sitting here," Gray said.
The back of the metal school facing the playing fields is sandbagged. The snow melt was so high last spring that it came into the school on one side and flowed right through and out the front door, Gray said. "We had to rip out all the drywall; the kids were out of school."
Out behind the metal school, the playing field has only one set of goalposts.
The newer building has a big gym, with a weight room and a temporary stage. While the gym looks really nice, Gray said, "We do get some water drips in here when it rains."
In winter, the moist, warm air rises, forms condensation, and water drips. The staff came in one morning to find a wooden board had fallen onto the gym floor overnight -- Gray shudders at the thought of the board's having fallen during a gym class.
There is a Reading Recovery program and also a speech clinician, Gray said. But the school has no maintenance budget and uses the library as a classroom.
Gray's son goes to Kirkcaldy Heights School in Brandon, built the same time as Sioux Valley's school in the late '80s: "You look at the conditions there compared to here. It's mind boggling," he said and sighed.
WAYWAYSEECAPPO FIRST NATION
Waywayseecappo School is one of Manitoba's newest aboriginal schools, nestled in a rolling valley just northwest of Rossburn with a playground and field, home to 457 students.
Those students are in nursery to Grade 9. About 65 high schoolers go to public high schools in Rossburn and Russell, the band paying the busing costs and finding the money to pay the difference between INAC's per-student funding, about $5,200, and what the division charges. If the public system charges close to the provincial average, the reserve would have to make up a $4,000-a-student shortfall. In most reserves without a high school, INAC would foot that bill. But it won't in Waywayseecappo because it says the reserve school is big enough to hold grades 10 to 12.
Educators at Waywayseecappo say they can't give interviews without the chief's presence and approval.
Sources say the school needs a speech and language specialist but has no money for hiring. A school psychologist comes out from Winnipeg to assess children twice a year, the band paying for hotel accommodation.
FISHER RIVER CREE NATION
Principal Davin Dumas is a guy in love with education.
He knows the kids at Charles Sinclair School, the kids know him and give principal Dumas a big smile as he walks the halls.
Charles Sinclair School has good, caring teachers, and 410 bright, cheerful students in nursery to Grade 12. But that's just about where any positive comparison with a similar-sized public school ends.
Walk the corridors of the 36-year-old school with Dumas, and you'll see a broken water fountain, chipped paint, badly scuffed floors, dented radiators and streaks on the walls and doors.
Maintenance you'd take for granted in a public school just isn't there. Not enough money.
"Fisher River is one of many communities losing its language -- there's not many under 55 who speak the language," lamented Dumas. "We have a halftime Cree immersion program."
Can you imagine French immersion teachers in a Winnipeg public school having to devise their own curricular materials? That's what First Nations teachers must do to provide children heritage language courses.
"We only have one gym for the full school," said Dumas.
And it's a tiny gym, with no stage and no bleachers, not even space to put chairs around the walls.
"Something that's not considered is a cafeteria or eating space," Dumas said.
There is just one resource room. "We have one full-time resource teacher. We have a speech and language pathologist who comes out twice a month. Same with the child psychologist."
Options? Courses beyond the core basics?
"I'd like to see music, art, drama," Dumas said. "A way can be found to get materials, but it's staffing, the restraints put on staffing" that limit vocational classes and courses the school can offer.
"Salary-wise, we cannot compete with the school divisions. Aboriginal people, we're hands-on learners," Dumas said, but the school's only vocational space is a woodworking shop that the whole community embraces.
* * *
Shamatawa First Nation education director Ron Miles was finishing a meeting in the conference room of a Winnipeg airport hotel last winter, savouring a can of pop that would cost a lot more back home.
Miles faced a long drive, first to Thompson, where he'd load up his vehicle with groceries, then another long drive to Gillam, and finally five hours on a winter road, maybe in the dark, the chances slim that he'd pass another vehicle, out of cell phone range, absolutely no one to help if he has a problem on the road.
"A jug of milk is $12" in Shammatawa, where Miles is director of education at Abraham Beardy Memorial School, with 350 students in kindergarten to Grade 10, a community where school absenteeism is rampant, unemployment high and solvent sniffing ubiquitous.
For grades 11 and 12, the students go to Cranberry Portage, Thompson or Winnipeg, flying home only at Christmas and March breaks. It's $460 one way to Winnipeg, $260 to Thompson. Most of their parents are on welfare and can't fly to visit their children, said Miles.
The school pays for the students' flights, but that cuts into what's left for the younger students still on the reserve.
"We do need programming," said Miles. "We lack the funds we need to staff our school. The school needs music and science teachers and programs. Someone teaches science, but is not a science teacher; someone teaches phys-ed, but is not a phys-ed teacher. We don't have a specialized science teacher, per se."
In September of 2008, recalled Miles, "We had to shut the school down for three weeks. There was a mould problem. The furnaces weren't functioning. The hydro costs are over half a million a year -- it depletes our funding."
And, said Miles, "There's a lot of social problems. The parents don't have enough dollars at home to keep their kids fed. We're trying to start a breakfast program."
The reserve schools have to compete, and at a disadvantage, with public schools in the labour market.
"Frontier School Division pays its teachers 25 per cent higher than the teachers we have in our community," Miles said. It makes staffing tough, and specialized staffing, such as teachers who can deal with learning disabilities, even tougher.
Rebecca Ross, director of education at Cross Lake First Nation, said First Nations schools get about $5,400 per student as basic grants, about 60 per cent of the public school grant.
"There's a great big disparity. There's a big gap. We could do a lot more if it was comparable." And while it's an open secret that Winnipeg's core area schools pump up their numbers -- and grant income -- by filling as many desks as possible on opening day, there's no such shenanigans on the rez.
INAC puts band schools through the wringer when doling out its relatively meagre funding, Ross said: "We're really scrutinized on our student count -- they come and do an audited review."
Cross Lake has difficulty getting teachers with specialized skills. "Our salaries are much less, so how can you attract teachers? We want to teach our language and culture. There's no specific funding in that area," Ross said.
Nor is there a school gym.
Ernie McDougall, director of education at Garden Hill First Nation, lost an applicant for a vacant high school physical education teacher spot, because even with the remote living allowance Garden Hill could offer, the salary was $14,000 below Winnipeg School Division.
"We've fallen so far behind, to catch up, we're going to have to have a salary increase greater than the provincial school divisions," McDougall said. "We have to be able to compensate for what INAC did in the past."
One outcome, just for example: McDougall had a student who graduated high school with her eye on a nursing career. But the faculty of nursing had prerequisites of biology, chemistry and pre-calculus, which Garden Hill couldn't offer. "She had to do Grade 12 again, down south." There's a year that young woman won't get back.
Nora Murdock, Fisher River Cree Nation director of education, said "We need to have stability. It's qualified teachers and qualified instruction that make all the difference. We can't offer a lot of specialized programs. "We're always limited in what we can do -- all we ask is to be comparable."
She knows, though, that she has it better than some. At least Fisher River has a school, Murdock said, and not huts for classrooms like too many other Manitoba reserves.
Aboriginal young people will make up 25 per cent of Manitoba's workforce in just a few years. As it stands, they'll be coming out of ill-maintained schools staffed by underpaid teachers delivering a stripped-down version of a standard education.
"It's almost designed for us to fail," said Ron Evans, Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs.
AMC has asked for parity with public school funding. Evans hopes to address the Manitoba School Boards Association's March convention to propose greater access to public school resources.
"There's a labour shortage, but we can't get them educated and trained fast enough. The only way we can achieve that is to have a collective education plan."
The payoff would be substantial -- fewer prisoners, fewer children in foster care, fewer people with the poor health that is poverty's sidekick.
INAC's regional director, Anna Fontaine, insists that the amount of money Ottawa puts toward education is in the same ballpark as Manitoba's public school system. But there's many a slip between the cup of Ottawa grants and the classroom lip. "Perhaps if more education dollars went into education, we'd have more flexibility for programs," she said, tartly.
There's money for teacher enhancement, for the particular challenges of remote communities, for adult education, for teachers' professional development to improve early years literacy and math skills, to get parents and the community involved in schools -- even resources for aboriginal language programs that the educators say they don't have.
But a lot of that funding comes in block grants that chiefs and band councils can put toward whatever they identify as their community's greatest priorities, and sometimes housing and clean water are more immediate challenges.
Public schools also get their per-student money in block grants, but dozens of other sources of provincial education funding are categorical grants that must be spent on specific educational needs, such as busing, French immersion, or special needs, so there's no way it can go astray.
The public schools also have property taxes on which to draw, hundreds of millions of additional dollars each year. (Evans, the grand chief, said some reserves augment their grants with VLT money. If gambling is indeed a tax on desperation, there's probably some sort of horrible parallel there.)
* * *
Manitoba's 64 First Nations have only 13 high schools, so many bands have to send their children out to live the school year with relatives or strangers while going to public schools in Thompson, Cranberry Portage and Winnipeg.
Each year, about 400 high school students from 23 reserves come to Winnipeg School Division alone, almost invariably enrolling in high schools in central and north Winnipeg, the bands paying $9,100 for academic tuition and $10,200 for vocational, said deputy secretary-treasurer Tom Bobby.
Brianne Thomas came into Winnipeg from Shammatawa as an 18-year-old to take Grade 10 at Daniel McIntyre Collegiate. It was her first trip to Winnipeg.
Her alternative had been to go to R.D. Parker in Thompson. "I wanted the experience, how it is to live in the city," said Thomas. "I stay with my auntie. I get driven here every morning; it's about a 10-minute drive.
"I'm going to have a baby soon -- I need day care. I'll maybe transfer to RB," Thomas said, referring to R.B. Russell School on Dufferin Avenue.
Hannah Bear, 17, came from Berens River to do Grade 11 at Daniel Mac.
Her reserve school "only goes up to Grade 9. They send you to Cranberry Portage, or they sponsor you to come to Winnipeg," Bear said.
The trip is eight hours by plane, which lands twice, to go to Cranberry Portage from Berens River. Driving on winter roads is 12 hours.
"There's not that many houses out there either. My cousin is 19, and she has three kids and she only has Grade 9," but can't get housing, said Bear.
Daniel Mac principal Gilles Beaumont said that homesickness and the culture shock of being in a big school and a huge city are the toughest barriers kids from the north face. It's not uncommon for them to go home for Thanksgiving or Christmas and not return.
"Some have been out of school. There are holes in their education chronology at times," Beaumont said.
The bands handle housing in Winnipeg, Bobby said: "They indicate which school they want to attend. More come in for academic than vocational," Bobby said. "The Winnipeg Adult Education Centre is a very popular school, Children of the Earth. Gordon Bell is another popular school... (as is) Elmwood."
But virtually none at Sisler. No First Nations students at Kelvin or Grant Park -- of the south end schools only Churchill gets a few.
And, surprisingly, WSD does not track graduation rates of First Nations students.
Frontier School Division stretches from Falcon Beach to Churchill, the vast majority of its public students aboriginal residents or kids from First Nations communities whose reserve schools don't offer all the higher grades.
Increasingly, say superintendent Gordon Shead and secretary-treasurer Gerald Cattani, First Nations are contracting with Frontier to run their reserve school.
Frontier's school in Cranberry Portage handles students from all over northern Manitoba.
FSD also buses students into Cranberry Portage for a week to get compressed courses such as technical and vocational, Shead said.
Shead said that when FSD goes in under contract, the First Nations school teachers join the Manitoba Teachers' Society and go under Frontier's collective bargaining agreement. "It's always resulted in a salary increase for the teachers," he said, confirming what the reserve educators said about the smaller salaries they are able to offer.
Frontier usually adds teachers' aides. And Frontier brings better special needs programming, with much quicker identification of students with special needs, Cattani said.
It would make eminent sense, Shead said, for the province to run aboriginal education while getting funding from Ottawa.
Cattani and Shead agreed that an ongoing problem is that INAC staff are not educators. For example, when Frontier contracted to operate Pine Creek school, it found a magnificent library devoid of books. It hadn't occurred to INAC that one needed the other. Said Cattani "We had books within weeks."
"INAC doesn't have an education focus -- they're in the business of funding," said Shead.
There are success stories in aboriginal schools, just way too few, says University of Winnipeg anthropology Prof. George Fulford, whose Sharing Our Success project examined best practices in 20 aboriginal schools across Canada.
He cited Mount Carmel School in Kenora which did "phenomenal work" on improving reading, from bottom 10 per cent to 66th percentile in Ontario's standardized testing after teachers realized that many students suffered from inner ear infections and installed classroom speakers.
The school pumped $500 a teacher into professional development, and went to far earlier and far more sensitive intervention for pupils with reading problems.
And one more thing: "You want to improve attendance, get a breakfast program," Fulford said.
"All the things southern students take for granted, our children can not enjoy those. The truth has to come out, that our education is not comparable to the public schools." -- Rebecca Ross, director of education at Cross Lake First Nation
Of the 30 kids now in Grade 1 in Sioux Valley Dakota Nation: "By the time that class gets to Grade 12, there might be five of them. There's no value placed on education." -- Sioux Valley education director Corey Mini
"We're expected to deliver programs and services with inadequate funding. It's almost designed for us to fail." -- Grand Chief Ron Evans
"There are so many things that are available (in the provincial curriculum). When I look at the course list from the province, I say I wish I could implement some of these things for my students." -- Davin Dumas, principal of Charles Sinclair School on Fisher River Cree Nation
"INAC, they expect us to give our people quality education. We're so underfunded, how can we do that? Sometimes I wonder why these people come out and work for us -- they could make so much more." -- a director of education, talking about teachers at a First Nation school in Manitoba
"We do need programming. We lack the funds we need to staff our school. The school needs music and science teachers and programs. Someone teaches science, but is not a science teacher; someone teaches phys-ed, but is not a phys-ed teacher. We don't have a specialized science teacher, per se. We need a lab that's functional." -- Ron Miles, director of education at Shamattawa First Nation
"I didn't want to go to those education directors' meetings any more -- nothing's been done, we don't see any new money from INAC, our budgets haven't changed." -- an education director of a First Nations school in Manitoba
"Not all education money goes to education. A chief and council, they have a pot of money to deliver programs -- they have other pressures." -- Anna Fontaine, regional director general for the prairies for Indian and Northern Affairs Canada
What Brianne Thomas, an 18-year-old Grade 10 student at Daniel McIntyre Collegiate, would tell Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl to do on her reserve in Shamattawa: "To make a high school there."
"We've fallen so far behind, to catch up, we're going to have to have a (teachers') salary increase greater than the provincial school divisions. We have to be able to compensate for what INAC did in the past." -- Ernie McDougall, director of education for Garden Hill First Nation
"We're always limited in what we can do -- all we ask is to be comparable (to public schools). We need to have stability. It's qualified teachers and qualified instruction that make all the difference. We can't offer a lot of specialized programs." -- Nora Murdock, education director for Fisher River Cree Nation
"The biggest hurdle is the whole social factor from the reserve into an urban school, away from their families. We see homesickness. It's a huge hurdle for them." -- Daniel McIntyre Collegiate principal Gilles Beaumont on students from remote communities