Free to Learn in the Prince Rupert Daily News

This article, by George T. Baker, appeared on the front page of the Prince Rupert Daily News on March 19:

Local Tsimshian report on education funding

By George T. Baker – The Daily News

A new report by a Tsimshian author points to inefficiencies in post-secondary funding for First Nations students and recommends taking the funding away from Canadian band councils.

Calvin Helin of Port Simpson, author of ‘Dances with Dependency’, criticized the way First Nations students are awarded funding for post-secondary school through band councils rather than directly from Indian and Northern Affairs Canada.

He said that, while some band councils run efficient and ethical post-secondary funding programs, the majority of band councils are either too uneducated to do the job right or are too unethical to be trusted with the money.

However, he said he doesn’t think chief councillors could stand in the way of his proposal.

“I don’t see how chiefs can oppose a system which does not change any of the funding whatsoever, but guarantees every registered Indian in Canada will have the monies available to them to complete a post-secondary degree,” said Helin.

His report, co-authored by Dave Snow, points to numerous problems within the post secondary funding, as well as statistics and arguments that echo his book and suggest that Canada’s future is tied to making sure First Nations – especially those living on reserve – are given a chance to reach academic success.

The federal government is constitutionally responsible for First Nations education programs, particularly those on reserve.

According to the report, INAC spends $314 million per year through the Post-Secondary Student Support Program, but there is little transparency tied to the dollars, with band councils left to decide who receives funding and how much is given.

Money is awarded through block funding, or a general fund, with no success benchmarks set, nor any way to track the dollars once given.

Instead, the best way to access the money is through family ties.

“A lot of that money is not getting through to students and it’s not getting through because chiefs and councils politicize the money. They finance some and not others depending on who votes for them,” said Helin. “Something as important as education has turned into a political football.”

Aboriginals living in British Columbia’s Northwest are interested in attaining a post-secondary education.

According to figures published by Northwest Community College, 51 per cent of the entire student population is Aboriginal – 47 per cent for Prince Rupert – and an NWCC spokesperson said that there is a growing appetite for more.

“I think that appetite has been there for a long time and I don’t think its anything new. I have heard a number of aboriginal leaders say that education is the key to their future,” said NWCC Communications Manager Dave O’Leary.

Mark Ignas told the Daily News that the Kitkatla Band Council has devised their own way for awarding money for post-secondary schooling.

“In the administration we have an education coordinator that is ultimately answerable to council. There is a base requirement for fairness. And if that fairness were not achieved, they would be held accountable. Every member has great opportunities to accept post-secondary education and are funded accordingly,” said the Kitkatla band council manager.

So the desire exists, but still, said Helin, the students are not receiving the type of funding support they deserve under current Canadian law.

Instead, what Helin would like to see and what he and Snow argue for in ‘Free to Learn’ is awarding each First Nations child born in Canada $3,000 into a trust account created specifically for that child to earn a post-secondary education. The money would earn interest until the account holder became eligible to draw money out after enrolling in post-secondary.

What if an aboriginal decided he or she did not want to go to post-secondary school? They would have ten years after they graduated to decide. If he or she decided not to go, then their money would be reinvested into a general pool and other newly born aboriginal children.

“We felt that 10 years was long enough for them to decide,” said Helin.

Helin cited a looming demographic change in Canada as being one significant issue that would be addressed through better funding policies.

More than 36 per cent of on-reserve Aboriginals receive welfare compared to 5.5 per cent of non-aboriginals.

In the 2006 census, 38 per cent of Aboriginals aged 25-64 had less than a high school education, compared to 15 per cent for non-aboriginals. Only three per cent of Aboriginals with status cards hold a university degree.

However, First Nations people used $6.2 billion worth of services in 2006 and are predicted to use to $8.4 billion per year by 2026, beyond what Helin believed to be the average for Canadian society.

Helin said those statistics alone should motivate INAC to change given the federal government’s current debt crisis and the aging demographics of the Canadian population, which threatens to create even more receivers than suppliers of Canadian services.

“There is no reason other than bureaucrats are lazy and they like to keep the status quo. A lot of the monies are being used by chiefs and councillors for other purposes – such as travel.”