B.C. aboriginal schools need boost, report says

Schools on First Nations reserves in B.C. need 50 per cent more money than the federal government now provides, says Canada’s federal budget watchdog.

A report released this week said reserve schools in the province need $39 million this fiscal year to maintain current infrastructure, but Ottawa typically provides $26 million annually.

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The report was requested by NDP aboriginal affairs critic and Nanaimo-Cowichan MP Jean Crowder as a followup to a 2009 report that showed more than 500 reserve schools in Canada are under-funded.

On Thursday, Crowder said the gap in funding stems from a refusal by the federal government to compare its level of funding for aboriginal schools with that of schools under the provincial school system.

“There isn’t a comparable level of service,” said Crowder, calling the situation “shameful.”

The lack of funding is depriving aboriginal youth of the educational resources available to other youth in the province and hampering their chances of securing good employment in the future, Crowder said.

The issue is a long-standing concern, she said, and has been going on since before the Conservatives took power.

The classroom resources are lacking and the schools are deteriorating.

“Some of these schools don’t have computers and have gyms that look like they’re falling apart,” Crowder said.

Teachers come and go because they move on to the provincial system where wages and benefits are better, she added.

Crowder plans to meet with the First Nations Education Steering Committee, a B.C.-based non-profit organization, to determine a course of action.

Greg Louie, president of the First Nations’ School Association and a committee member, said the lack of funding is part of the reason for the 57.5 per cent graduation rate for aboriginal students, which lags about 20 per cent behind non-aboriginal students.

“The [funding] gap has to do with the paternalistic attitude the federal government has adopted through the Indian Act,” said Louie, who was principal of the school in Ahousaht for 15 years.

First Nations students have a higher need for special education, but the money isn’t there to pay for it, Louie said.

“For many years, our funding was not increasing. It was on hold from 1991 to recently,” he said.

Increases, when they came, were little more than two per cent a year, he said.

Like Crowder, Louie would like to see comparable funding to schools under the provincial school system.

“What we’ve been saying to the federal government is: ‘Bring us up to par. Let us have comparability with the public system,’ ” Louie said.

First Nations schools are making do with what funding they have and making some progress, he said.

“When it comes down to the students in the school and communities, I think our students are doing well, [but] you have to face reality with some of the dysfunctions — the inter-generational effects of residential schools,” Louie said.

For years, aboriginal children were removed from their families and sent away to boarding schools, where they lived in substandard conditions and suffered emotional, physical and sexual abuse.

Today’s First Nations schools don’t fund teaching of language and culture while the provincial system includes French-language instruction and immersion. Only one school out of 130 in the province offers aboriginal students instruction in their own language, Louie said.

“In B.C., there’s a French-language school district that has fewer students than all of our First Nations schools combined,” he said.

Judith Sayers, a strategic adviser to First Nations and corporations, said “many of the [First Nations] schools are always struggling to make ends meet with the small amount of money they get.”

“This has been a constant struggle.”

While textbooks are supplied, there’s a lack of science labs, physical education and access to resources on the Internet.

smcculloch@timescolonist.com

With a file from CP

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