Government urged to invest in First Nations education

The former lieutenant-governor of Ontario says Canadians view aboriginal people as less than human.

Inequity in funding reveals racist attitudes, James Bartleman says

Grand Chief Stan Beardy of Nishnawbe Aski Nation, former Ontario lieutenant-governor James Bartleman and Stephan Kudaka of Diversity Thunder Bay were at a recent breakfast marking the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. (Nishnawbe Aski Nation)

James Bartleman, the former lieutenant-governor of Ontario, says Canadians view aboriginal people as less than human.

It's the only way he can explain the underfunding of First Nations schools in Canada and the fact some children are allowed to go months without classes, Bartleman told CBC News after an anti-racism event in Thunder Bay, Ont.

Elementary students in Pikangikum First Nation in northwestern Ontario have missed 60 days of school since Christmas. Teachers still haven’t returned after mould was discovered in their homes in December.

"I was going to say that it's maybe because people aren't familiar with the issue, [but] they are familiar with the issues," said Bartleman, who was Ontario's first aboriginal lieutenant-governor. "Maybe there's a lingering sense that maybe native people aren't as human as others and you can do things to them or let things happen that you wouldn't accept with other people in society."

Pikangikum school principal Joanne Donnelly said the First Nation has completed repairs on the homes provided for school staff. But she said about 30 teachers from outside the community are waiting for air-quality test results before returning. Those results are expected this week, but not in time to save the students’ school year.

"In terms of our elementary students from kindergarten all the way through to Grade 7, it probably means they're going to miss their year because they've missed so much time," Donnelly said.

Education a 'ticket' out of poverty

Bartlemanm a former diplomat, said Canada must do a better job of First Nations education.

"Education was my ticket out of a life of poverty," he said, adding both the provincial and federal governments have the opportunity to invest in aboriginal education with their respective budgets this week.

"You have to provide justice to the [First Nation] communities," he said. "There is no excuse in a country like Canada … that we do not provide the same quality of education to native children on reserves [as we do] to non-native children living off reserve. How can we live with that?

"I hope that, in the coming budget, the government will rectify that."

While First Nation education is a federal responsibility, Bartleman said he would like to see Ontario follow through on recommendations in Don Drummond's report on reforming the public service and top up the federal allocation so that provincial standards can be met.

First Nation schools now receive one-third to one-half less funding per student than other schools in Ontario.