Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The myth of native abundance

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A lot of money — more than $10 billion, in fact — is expended in the effort to help lift aboriginals out of the poverty and Third World conditions that afflict their home territories on some 600 reserves across Canada.

For some people, that's way too much cash for what seems like very little progress.

For others, it means aboriginals are getting all the support they need, but such an attitude can be short-sighted and even preposterous.

Unfortunately, that's the perspective of a wealthy Saskatchewan couple who wanted to create a generous $500,000 endowment for needy students, providing the recipients were not aboriginal. Their intentions might be well-intentioned, but they are also misguided and uninformed.

Fortunately, the university did the right thing and turned down the offer, citing human rights legislation and other considerations in its decision. The controversy, however, has usefully focused attention on the misperception that aboriginals, as the couple stated, already receive generous funding for post-secondary education. Indeed, there is a prevalent attitude that every aboriginal can go to university or college for free, and that a treaty card is a ticket to wealth and higher education.

It is simply not the case, nor is it the case that the pockets of First Nations are overflowing with the cash needed to send them to the big city for higher education.

Native bands receive an allotment for post-secondary education, but the amount has not increased much in years.

Nor was it ever adequate to fully fund the education of First Nations youth, who bear the additional costs of moving to a strange city.

Some native band councils have also got into the habit of diverting money set aside for one purpose and using it for another.

So, while education may be a priority, housing and potable water are also essential to the well-being of those living on reserves. Faced with so many problems, native leaders have been forced to make hard decisions, including who can and cannot receive funding to attend university.

The result is that only some eligible aboriginals are fully funded.

The important point is that it is false that aboriginal education is a free gift for all who apply, which was the reason cited by the couple who thought it only made sense to direct their funds to non-aboriginals only.

Some determined aboriginals have been forced to take out student loans to advance their education, but research has shown that, for a variety of reasons, many natives are reluctant to go into debt when their futures are so uncertain, even with an education.

That's a problem, particularly at a time when more and more young aboriginals are finishing high school, only to find that little in the way of financial help is available to advance their educations.

Hopefully, therefore, the Saskatchewan couple can be convinced to alter their terms, because aboriginals still need plenty of help, particularly in the area of education.

The couple wanted to help needy students. Well, there are none more needy students in Canada than aboriginals, whose ability to achieve success should be important to every Canadian.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 15, 2009 A14

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