Give some First Nations schools more money than urban counterparts, says federal minister

Some long-neglected First Nations schools should get even more funding than schools in Canada's cities and towns, says Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Carolyn Bennett.

'That’s music to our ears': Assembly of First Nations' education chair Bobby Cameron

Island Lake First Nation School students watch staff fillet a fish. (Island Lake First Nation School)

First Nations schools deserve the same level of funding as those in Canada's cities and towns, but some First Nations schools should get even more, says Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Carolyn Bennett.

Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Carolyn Bennett says some First Nations schools deserve even more funding than those in cities and towns. (CBC)

In an interview with CBC News, Bennett noted that many First Nations schools are remote. Some would like to develop and teach Indigenous language curriculum. Others want to integrate cultural camps or "on-the-land" learning into the school year.

These and other considerations will require more money than the average urban school, Bennett said.

"That's music to our ears," said Assembly of First Nations regional chief and education chair Bobby Cameron.

Cap leads to gap

The funding gap between schools on and off First Nations has been growing for decades since the federal government imposed a two per cent "cap" on education increases to schools and other services on reserves.

Both Liberal and Conservative governments maintained this cap.

Meanwhile, provincially funded schools in cities and towns received far bigger increases to cover teacher salaries, basic inflation and other costs.

As a result, many First Nations schools can't afford computers, science labs or sports equipment. Teacher turnover is often high because salaries aren't competitive. Only a handful of schools offer Cree, Dene or other immersion programs, even though urban students across Canada have ready access to French immersion and other language instruction.

Some schools are succeeding in spite of the situation. The Island Lake First Nation School, located in northwest Saskatchewan near the Alberta border, has enough computers, and many students are thriving, said principal Jon Kemp.

Island Lake First Nation School students cheer at a recent rally. (Island Lake First Nation School)

But they have few social workers or other specialists that are needed, Kemp said.

He said elders and teachers are doing their best to teach Cree culture, but more funding would allow them to offer a full immersion program.

"We have students that struggle," he said. "These other supports would be great."

Beyond parity

The Trudeau government has pledged to remove the funding cap and give $2.6 billion over five years for First Nations education. That will partly close the funding gap facing the 515 elementary and high schools on reserves.

Bennett now says the goal is to go beyond parity for First Nations school funding, and also to allow Canada's First Nations to implement their own beliefs and traditions into their school systems.

"We've got a ways to go [but] I think we're going to do it," she said.

She emphasized "First Nations-led systems that actually set their own priorities and get funded according to their need."

Assembly of First Nations regional chief Bobby Cameron says Bennett's pledge is music to his ears. (Jason Warick)

Cameron lauded Bennett for the funding pledge and said he is happy to hear her say publicly what she recently told the Assembly of First Nations and other leaders.

He also appreciates the priority Bennett is placing on First Nations' control of their own education.

"It's been a long time coming where we've had a serious investment into First Nations education," Cameron said. "I mean, we're talking about two, three, four decades here where our First Nations leadership and students and post-secondary students have been waiting patiently."

He expects more progress when Bennett meets with him and other leaders in February at a Calgary forum for First Nations directors of education.