Jun 5, 2012 | Chamber News


Federal government funding and legal structures for First Nations student education falls far behind that of other Canadians, to a degree that is nearly unbelievable.

The huge costs to Canadian society and business created by the poor education and the extreme inadequacy of the First Nations educational system are well documented, most recently by:

  • A report from the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples[1], chaired by Conservative Senator Gerry St. Germain and supported by Liberal senators, which urged legislation to create a First Nations education system, and
  • The National Panel on First Nation Elementary and Secondary Education (The Panel) which delivered its report Feb. 8, 2012.  It was co-sponsored by Mr. Shawn A-in-chut Atleo, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) and the Honourable John Duncan, Canada’s Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development.

In Canada, education is a constitutional responsibility of the provinces and territories, except for First Nations peoples living on reserves where the federal government is responsible. Thus, First Nations students have a different educational funder and management structure than other Canadians.

There are a number of aspects of First Nation peoples’ education that require improvement, but the following provides a focus on two; underfunding and lack of educational structure.


In 1996 the federal government placed a cap on First Nation education spending of a 2 percent increase per year. Since then the provinces’/territories’ education budgets have been growing at an average of just over 4 percent, even as their enrolments drop[i]. Thus, the funding per student has increased at an even higher rate. But the federal government has maintained its cap.

In addition, the number of First Nation students has increased by 23 percent. The cap applies to total federal spending, so every increase in student numbers reduces the funding per student.

Currently the widely agreed upon figure is that funding for First Nation education is only 60 to 70 percent of that for non-First Nations students. A 3-year pilot project started recently in Manitoba found funding of $7,200 per student (from the federal government) at the Waywaysecapo First Nation high school and $10,500 per student at the provincial high school only a few kilometres away.  Differing views exist on the underfunding; all agree that funding is grossly inadequate.

While remote communities have special and separate issues, many First Nation students are not in remote communities; but they still face discrimination in their education – because they are First Nation and fall under federal responsibility instead of provincial/territorial responsibility like every other Canadian citizen.

Lack of Federal Education Structure:

The Panel extensively documented the embarrassing gaps and inadequacies in the current First Nation education policies and practices of the federal government.

“In the early 1970s, following the dissolution of the residential school system and the devolution of First Nation education to individual First Nations, virtually no thought was given to the necessary supporting structure for the delivery of First Nation education. There was no clear funding policy, no service provision and no legislation, standards or regulations to enshrine and protect the rights of a child to a quality education and to set the education governance and accountability framework. No consideration was given to the connections and inter-relationships to provincial systems and no accountability were put in place for transitions of students between provincial and First Nation schools.” (footnote required)

Every provincial/territorial government in the country has an education department with expertise focused on delivery of sound education. And they have the legislation required to manage education. For example, Manitoba governs schools with 150 pages of legislation in the Public Schools Act and the Education Administration Act.

This is in extreme contrast to the federal government which has no such department and is recognized as not having such expertise. The federal government’s legislation covering its responsibilities for First Nation education consists of only 3 pages in the Indian Act.


The history of residential schools that destroyed family relationships and caused a great many aboriginal Canadians to associate “schools” with forced removal of children, has created a culture that makes many aboriginals cautious of outsiders forcing education on their communities.

The Right Honourable Paul Martin was the federal finance minister when the 2 percent spending cap was put in place. While speaking in Winnipeg in the fall 2010, after swearing in the new Aboriginal Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors, he described the current First Nation education system as “dumb as a bag of hammers”. When asked why it had continued under successive governments he said he did not think enough politicians or voters understood the situation, otherwise it would have changed before now.

First Nations have been frustrated by the long-time lack of action on this issue. The federal government signed a comprehensive agreement with provincial/territorial governments and aboriginal leaders (known as the Kelowna Accord) that included educational reform, but that was halted when the new government came to power in 2006. The Kelowna Accord had made First Nations education a priority.

Business Issue:

The inadequate education system is not just a moral and social issue; it is also an economic and business issue. Giving all students equal opportunity to a good education is recognized around the world as a key to economic development.

National Chief of the AFN, Mr. Atleo, has made educational reform for First Nations a top priority during his term in office. Recently he said, “There’s a compelling economic imperative as well, [because of] an aging mainstream Canadian population. And the fastest-growing segment of the population in this country is First Nations young people.”[ii]

The need is urgent. Forty-two per cent of the Registered Indian population is under 20 years of age while for Canadian total population it is 25 percent. And, the on-reserve population is expected to grow by 64 percent over the next 14 years. Sixty percent of on-reserve youth do not complete high school, severely limiting their own potential and depriving the work force of a valuable resource.

In some provinces/territories the portion of school age children that are First Nations is much higher than the national average, e.g. Manitoba has the highest proportion in the country with 25 percent of 5 to 14 year olds being First Nations. Thus, in those provinces/territories with a high percentage, the future economic prospects are more negatively impacted by the federal government’s inadequate education system. A 2011 news article (from where?) succinctly described the consequences of the federal education policies:

  • High dropout rate: 38% of First Nations between 25 and 34 do not have a high school diploma; versus less than ½ that (at 16%) for non-aboriginals
  • Low employment rate versus non-aboriginals for all education levels except University degree (see table following)


Education Attained Aboriginal Employment Rate            (%) Non-Aboriginal Employment Rate           (%)
No high school 30.3 38.3
High school diploma 58.7 63.8
Trades certificate 62.8 68.2
College diploma 70.3 72.7
University degree         78.4                                               76.6

Sources: Statistics Canada and Census (which year?) Canada Policy Research Networks

This lower educational result means First Nations are not as well prepared to enter the workforce as non-First Nations students. This reduces the skills and number of workers available to Canadian business, increases social costs and decreases the GDP and tax revenues of the country.

Resolving this issue holds one of the greatest economic opportunities for Canada. As noted in the Panel’s report, the Centre for the Study of Living Standards estimates that Canada would gain $401 billion[iii] in increased productivity and reduced expenses over 25 years if First Nation individuals had the same education and employment outcomes as the average Canadian.

Dramatic Change for the Future:

The recent high profile report[iv] of the Panel outlines five recommendations it considers essential to improving education outcomes for First Nation students. They are to:

  • Co-create a child-centered First Nation Education Act
  • Create a National Commission for First Nation Education to support education reform and improvement
  • Facilitate and support the creation of a First Nation education system through the development of regional First Nation Education organizations to provide support and services for First Nation schools and First Nation students
  • Ensure adequate funding to support a First Nation education system that meets the needs of First Nation learners, First Nation communities and Canada as a whole; and
  • Establish accountability and reporting framework to assess improvement in First Nation education

The Panel’s recommendations reflect a growing consensus:

“The key to smashing this cycle of failure is to replace the patch-work of reserve schools overseen by local band councils with a First Nations education system. Provincial native school boards, or their equivalent, would supervise the schools and the teachers in them, while ensuring the curriculum fit with both the indigenous culture and provincial standards. For this, there would be extra money from Ottawa and greater involvement by provincial governments – which are already have the expertise for educating students.”

At the end of February 2012, a unanimous, all-party resolution was passed by Parliament which promised a First Nations education system that will be “at a minimum, of equal quality to provincial school systems”. The resolution is an implicit admission that First Nation students on reserves are not receiving the education that their non-First Nation counterparts can access.

Further, the federal government announced, as part of the March 2012 Budget, that it will introduce a First Nation Education Act “to establish the structures and standards needed to support strong and accountable education systems on-reserve.” This is as was recommended by the Panel. It would lead to the creation of a proper First Nation education system.

This is a dramatic step towards improvement. It is viewed by many as giving Prime Minister Stephen Harper an opportunity to create the legacy of an improved First Nation education system.

The March 2012 federal budget included additional funding of $275 million over three years targeted to support First Nations education and to build and renovate schools on reserve. The budget also committed the government to introduce legislation and explore new funding mechanisms for First Nations elementary and secondary education. However, there is no new funding for the Post-Secondary Student Support Program for First Nations and Inuit, despite a backlog of over 10,000 students. And, the 2 percent cap on funding has not been lifted.  The Assembly of First Nations has stated that $500 million per year in funding is needed to bring First Nations education to the level of that provided to other Canadians.

For Canadians to continue to accept such inequality is unthinkable.

Many chiefs, especially younger ones, recognize that ending generations of poverty, ill health and joblessness on reserves begins with properly educating this generation of students. However, some others fear another ploy by Ottawa to assimilate their children. The wounds of residential schools are far from healed.

The good news is that First Nations do not have to wait for a fully documented complete national educational reform. Recently the federal and British Columbia governments ratified an agreement with First Nations leaders to create exactly that kind of system. Ottawa is increasing funding in an effort to ensure that students on reserve schools in B.C. receive something close to the education they would get at a provincial school, while protecting their culture and language.

A similar agreement is already in place in Nova Scotia. And the federal government has signaled that there is no need to wait for legislation if First Nations in other provinces/territories want to adopt the template.

While fewer than half of First Nations students on reserves graduate from high school nationally, the figure for Mi’kmaw students in Nova Scotia – most of whom attend a combination of reserve and provincial schools – is over 70 percent. The Senate report proposes building on that model with legislation that would encourage – but not compel – First Nation leaders across the country to co-operate in establishing school boards and even the equivalent of education ministries, with federal education funding flowing through the new authorities.

First Nations in Canada face many issues, but fixing the education system is an urgent requirement for success that can be acted upon, jointly with First Nations, by the federal government.

All over the world all agree that education is a key to future success of a society. To bring economic and social development as well as remove Canada’s current discriminatory educational system, action is required.

Why did Canadians ever accept less?


[1] Reforming First Nation Education:  From Crisis to Hope, December 2011

[i]     Globe and Mail Editorial, “Spending cap on aboriginal education is self-defeating”, Feb. 28, 2012

[ii]     ‘Do the math’ on native schools, Ottawa told”, Globe and Mail, Mar. 15, 2012

[iii]    National Panel on First Nation Elementary and Secondary Education Delivers Final Report – Press Release, February 8, 2012

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