First Nations Schools Are Chronically Underfunded

According to a new report the gap averages at 30%. The result is an education system that cuts corners says Evan Taypotat, chief of the Kahkewistahaw First Nation. Christopher Dart

According to a report by former TD Bank economist Don Drummond, the funding gap between First Nations schools vs other schools across Canada averages around 30 percent. Meanwhile, Indigenous leaders are committed to finding a way to bridge that gap, to retain autonomy over their schools, and fight for equal resources for their students.

One such leader, featured in the documentary Bee Nation, is Evan Taypotat, the principal at Chief Kahkewistahaw Community School, of student William Kaysaywaysemat III, who competed at the National Bee in Toronto. Taypotat talks about how frustrating it is for him that First Nations schools get less money-per-student than other schools.

Since Bee Nation was shot, some things have changed, others haven’t. First Nations schools are still underfunded, and Evan Taypotat is still furious about it, but the difference is he has a bigger platform now. Taypotat is the newly-elected chief of the Kahkewistahaw First Nation, and if anything, he’s more ready to fight for the students he calls “his kids” than ever before.

There is a funding gap on reserve schools

“ All reserve schools are federally funded,” says Taypotat. “That’s where the disconnect is. All other schools in the province are provincially funded. So then the First Nations schools are looked after by someone in Ottawa, who could actually care less about what’s going on on the reserve. The average funding for a reserve kid is about $6,800. The funding for a kid in Broadview, which is about 10 minutes away, is $11,000.”

First Nations education funding presents a conundrum for Indigenous leaders like Taypotat. To keep First Nations control of First Nations schools, the schools have to get funded federally. Federal funding is hampered, in part, by the fact that Indigenous program spending increases were capped at two per cent in the 1990s, below the rate of inflation, leaving band councils unable to keep up with a young, growing population.   

“We want to keep First Nations control of First Nations education,” he says. “If we give our right up to that and go to the provincial system, we’re no longer in charge of our own education. We get some superintendent that is caucasian, in some school division district that is predominantly caucasian, and they will be in charge of teaching First Nations kids.

SCENE FROM THE FILM: "It can be a challenge to grow up on the reserve."

“So the reserves have a choice to make. Do we give up our rights for our education for proper funding, or do we continue education our way — which is still predominantly by the curriculum that the provinces set out — and do that with less funding. That’s the way we’ve gone because we don’t want to give up our rights around education.”

The result, he says, is an education system that “cuts corners,” and leaves First Nations students at a disadvantage.

"We have to cut corners": First Nations chief

“We have to cut corners on kids with disabilities,” he says. “We have to cut corners on languages. We have to cut corners on how we feed them.  We have to cut corners on how our teachers are paid.We’ve got to send these kids to university, to [apply to] engineering school and medical school and teacher’s college, and they haven’t even been properly educated because of the funding gap.”

He adds that too many non-Indigenous Canadians are quick to stereotype First Nations people while being ignorant of the challenges faced by on reserve communities.

“A lot of people in this country we call Canada, are racist towards First Nations people,” says Taypotat. “They say all these mean things online, but they don’t even know our kids aren’t given a fair chance. They haven’t even stepped on a reserve. Let’s give our kids a fair chance, just like farmer Joe’s kids in Broadview. If we can do that, I promise you, the social differences, the ‘drunk Indian,’ the ‘you get free houses,’ those type of stereotypes will disappear, because our kids will get that proper education so they that they can succeed at the post-secondary level.”

Funding gap needs to be addressed

He says the new generation of First Nations leaders are ready to “get radical” to force the Federal government to address funding difference between First Nations schools and their provincial counterparts.

“We have to be radical,” he says. “Prime Minister Trudeau got elected, and a lot of First Nations voted for him based on [fixing] the funding gap. And we haven’t seen those dollars. And it’s been a year and a half now, and we’re sitting here waiting, and I know it takes a bit of time, but how much time do they need?  Because we’re sitting out here, we are funded a million dollars less than we would be if we lived in Broadview. It’s just to the point now where it’s time to become radical because no one cares in Ottawa.”

What does “radical” mean for Taypotat?

“You’ll read it in the paper sometime soon,” he says.

He adds that, as an educator, he was frustrated by the funding gap, but forced to get creative and make do as best he could. As a chief, though, he has power, a voice and a mandate to make things better for the people of Kahkewistahaw First Nation and other First Nations communities like it.

“As a principal, you can’t really do much about it, because it’s up to the politicians,” he says.  “So now I’m a politician, and I’m not going to stand by while this government runs roughshod over our education system.”