What happens next fall to the First Nations children attending 36 reserve schools in Manitoba that Ottawa has not elevated to equality with public schools after generations of inadequate education funding?
There was huge fanfare two months ago when Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett and Manitoba’s grand chiefs announced the creation of the Manitoba First Nations School System (MFNSS) — a Canadian first, with 12 reserve schools joining together and the children in those schools to receive federal education funding of $18,000 a student.
Ottawa is already providing funding at provincial levels at 10 reserve schools that have made arrangements with Frontier and Park West school divisions.
That’s barely one-third of the First Nations schools in Manitoba — will the rest remain underfunded?
Will their kids continue to get an inequitable level of education, the per-student federal funding $4,500 or more below their counterparts in public schools?
"I don’t see any immediate relief for that, if they’re not part of the group," said Damon Johnston, president of the Aboriginal Council of Winnipeg. "The kids will continue to struggle."
Nora Murdock, director of system development for the new MFNSS, said Ottawa is saying there is supposed to be additional money for the other 36 schools for language, culture and special needs.
But not right away.
"They’re (Liberals) saying there’s no mechanism for rolling out that money. They say it’ll take three years to come up with a new one. In the meantime, they’re willing to fund First Nations who are willing to aggregate, to be part of the new process," she said.
Getting anyone in authority to discuss what will happen to all those indigenous children’s inadequate quality of education is proving to be exceptionally difficult.
The announcement of the new 12-school Manitoba First Nations School System was rolled out in early December by Bennett and Manitoba’s grand chiefs.
On Jan. 9, Bennett’s press secretary, Sabrina Williams, first talked positively about arranging interviews to delve into the details of First Nations education in Manitoba, with Bennett and with federal bureaucrats directly working with the Manitoba First Nations School System.
Neither has happened, despite numerous follow-up requests.
The grand chiefs have declined interviews.
The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs (AMC) said several times that Grand Chief Derek Nepinak was considering discussing the situation in an interview, then finally referred all inquiries to the Manitoba First Nations Education Resource Centre.
The Southern Chiefs’ Organization (SCO) said new Grand Chief Jerry Daniels would consider an interview when he gets up to speed in his new job — that hasn’t happened yet.
The office of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO) Grand Chief Sheila North Wilson has not acknowledged several interview requests.
"There’s always politics in behind the scenes," Johnston said. "AMC, MKO, SCO are all in different places."
Seven indigenous academics recommended by the University of Manitoba and the University of Winnipeg have declined to be interviewed; some said others were more knowledgeable, some said there’s not enough detail yet on which to comment and some did not respond.