Feds back NDP plan to improve native education
Published Monday, February 27, 2012 7:31PM EST
The Conservative government backed legislation from the NDP Monday to improve education on reserves across the country, four years after a teen from Attawapiskat began pushing for serious change.
The legislation from the NDP seeks to equalize funding for on-reserve schools and put it on par with institutions funded through the provinces.
For the past 16 years, annual education funding increases from the federal government to First Nations have been capped at 2 per cent. Meanwhile, funding for provincial schools has increased by 6 per cent each year.
Attawapiskat teen Shannen Koostachin recognized that gap in 2007, and began pushing for change when Ottawa backed out of a plan to replace a derelict grade school in her community.
Through an active community-based campaign, Shannen brought much attention to the plight of schoolchildren in her community, and by the end of December 2009, the government had again agreed to build a new facility.
A year later, Shannen died in a car accident in northern Ontario. She was 15.
But on Monday, her dream of equality for her young classmates took a step closer to reality when the government backed the NDP plan to match expenditures for on-reserve schools.
Chelsea Edwards, Shannen's friend who has taken up her cause, was in Ottawa to witness the historic vote Monday.
"It's about time that First Nations children get to be heard for the first time," Edwards told CTV's Power Play, adding that her friend had "fought for so many years" to make change happen.
In a recent study, a First Nations task force wrote that at least 100 on-reserve schools were unfit for learning.
Edwards, 16, who grew up in Attawapiskat, saw those problems first-hand. In fact, she struggled everyday to learn while attending the community's run-down and putrid school.
"I didn't want to lose hope in myself because I knew that education was very important," she said.
It wasn't until she grew older and went to a public school in another northern Ontario community that she saw how things were meant to be done.
"When we went to school off-reserve, we knew immediately that (Attawapiskat's school) wasn't a real school. That's what we're advocating for."
NDP MP Charlie Angus, who represents Attawapiskat and the region around northern Ontario's James Bay, said he was "shocked" at the conditions when he first visited the remote area in 2004.
Angus said that Attawapiskat's "ramshackle" school was set-up on a piece of toxic land that gave some students nose bleeds.
He recalled that the experience affirmed "the template for the systemic negligence that children are being exposed to."
But the motion passed in Parliament Monday isn't binding, raising concern that Ottawa may not act any time soon.
While Angus said that he doesn't expect immediate action from the government, he knows that change is coming.
"We don't expect that the government is going to come through right away, but what we know is that they're running out of road, and they've recognized (that) they have to act."
Schoolchildren on reserves get up to $3,000 less annually per person compared to their counterparts at provincially run schools. Meanwhile, the Assembly of First Nations believes that an additional $500 million each year is needed to bring reserve schools up to par.
This winter, Attawapiskat has also been at the centre of a housing crisis after it was revealed that community members were living in un-winterized shacks.
Since then, the federal government has moved to install new homes for the community amid an ongoing political battle over the community's finances.
With a report from The Canadian Press