Fraser Forum

Federal parties need a lesson on First Nations education

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First Nations education spending has become a hot topic during this election campaign.

According to our research, when comparing the overall operating expenditure for elementary and secondary students living on reserve to that for other Canadian students, on-reserve students receive the same amount (on average) as other Canadian students, and in some cases, more. In fact, more than $1.5 billion is spent annually on just over 100,000 First Nations students who live on reserve. On average (as the above infographic shows), $13,524 was spent per on reserve student in 2010/11 compared to $11,646 spent on students attending provincial schools in Canada.

So if funding isn’t the issue, what is?

Many Canadians would be surprised to learn that schools on First Nations reserves are not statutorily required to provide the same services and functions as provincial public schools in Canada—they do not have minimum number of attendance days, no requirement for teacher certification, no required curriculum, and they are not governed by overarching legislation or a school board that allows students on reserve to achieve a recognized high school diploma following the completion of Grade 12. This lack of structure and comparability with provincial public schools has resulted in a system on reserve that is failing First Nations children.

However, when these structural and comparability issues are addressed, the results are dramatic. For example, in 1998 the First Nations communities in Nova Scotia entered into a legislative agreement, the Mi’kmaq Education Act, to create standards, reporting requirements and curriculum on-reserve that mirrored the provincial public schools. Following the implementation of this agreement, graduation rates and post-secondary enrolment substantially increased in First Nations communities in Nova Scotia. The graduation rate among Mi’kmaq students rose by more than 17 per cent over four years from 2008 to 2012, and by 2012/13 was over 87 per cent.

With graduation rates currently below 40 per cent on reserve, First Nations education should be addressed by all political parties. But the focus should be on the structure and policies for First Nations schools—not funding. Investing more money into a broken system without policy reforms will not help increase graduation rates. As the Mi’kmaq have shown us, structural and policy reform can have a dramatic impact on education outcomes on reserves. 

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