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Manitoba First Nations need education legislation

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The Fraser Institute has released interesting numbers in a report that attempts to unravel the contentious debate over whether First Nations schools across Canada are underfunded by the federal government, receiving much less than provincially funded public schools. The institute finds they get about the same, or more. Except in Manitoba.

And that is curious, as Manitoba's First Nations bands and political leaders have been front and centre over the years in the call for increased funding, for a resolution to the disparity in education financing, which robs their schools of competitive salaries for teachers and services, such as libraries and computers, for students.

The institute's analysis shows that in 2010/11, Manitoba's First Nations per-student funding was about $100 less per student, on average, than for provincial public schools. That's markedly different than the figures quoted by native leaders, who claim the gap is dramatically wider and hobbles their efforts to provide quality education on reserve, a complaint backed up by a 2011 Parliamentary committee report.

The Fraser Institute admits its analysis did not consider factors that can skew comparison. For example, band funding for education must also cover the tuition costs of the 40 per cent of 116,400 First Nations students who attend public schools, including the living costs of those who move to other communities.

The conservative think-tank contends, however, that in the very least the figures they pulled out of Ottawa, dispel the "myth" that bands are operating schools on thousands of dollars per student less than what's spent on all other Canadian students -- in British Columbia, for example, the institute found average per student funding is $3,000 higher for First Nations youth than other B.C. students.

The figures illustrate that First Nations bands have succeeded in moving Ottawa off a two per cent funding cap imposed in the mid-1990s by the Chrétien government. The question for Manitoba is why First Nations here have not had the success of counterparts elsewhere in getting increased funding.

The institute goes too far in asserting that the marked funding hikes since 2009 should have triggered improved outcomes, specifically raising high school graduation rates to something near those of mainstream Canadian schools. This will take more than a few short years to accomplish.

It is on firmer ground in its analysis that a lack of regulation and legislation that set standards in teaching, curriculum and in student academic achievement is central to the goal. Less than 40 per cent of First Nations high school students graduate, compared to 75 per cent in the rest of Canada. Money alone cannot close the gap.

The Indian Act's antiquated and truncated requirements of band schools say far more about truancy than about the training of teachers, quality of instruction, expectations of curriculum and demand for academic achievement. As a result, many band schools hand out high school diplomas no post-secondary institution or perhaps employer would recognize.

The graduation rate and the future prospects for First Nations youth pivot on raising the expectations of its schools, educators and administration. Legislation can set out academic and operational standards at least comparable to those in non-First Nation communities -- British Columbia, Quebec and Nova Scotia First Nation bands have education acts. In Nova Scotia, graduation rates among First Nations students are comparable to mainstream schools.

Manitoba bands operate without the benefit or guidance of an education act. The recent failure of the Harper government's attempt to introduce such legislation gives faint hope there will be a national solution to the statutory void in the near future. First Nations leaders here want to determine themselves how education is delivered on reserve. They should use the model set by bands in other provinces, write their own act to impose strong standards for schools and use it to negotiate robust, long-term funding agreements with the federal government. That would give them a strong hand to convince Ottawa it will see dividends in the accomplishments of First Nations youth.

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 August 11, 2014 A8

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