Thunder Bay

Province, feds playing 'ping-pong' on pandemic funding for First Nations schools, NDP says

Students from remote First Nations in northern Ontario are being short-changed by both levels of government when it comes to their safety during the pandemic, according to the NDP MPP for the region.

'Doug Ford needs to stop this cruel game,' Sol Mamakwa says

Education is a treaty obligation in Ontario, says Kiiwetinoong MP Sol Mamakwa, and the province must step up to help First Nations schools with COVID-19 safety. (Supplied by Sol Mamakwa)

Students from remote First Nations in northern Ontario are being short-changed by both levels of government when it comes to their safety during the pandemic, according to the NDP MPP for the region.

Some First Nations may not be able to open elementary schools in their communities at all this year, according to the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, and one high school is resorting to phoning and faxing students with lessons. It's all an effort to keep kids safe from COVID-19 in communities that lack basic infrastructure such as broadband internet access.

"There is no more time to waste on the jurisdictional game of ping-pong being played with First Nations education," said the NDP critic for Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation, Sol Mamakwa, the MPP for Kiiwetinoong

"Education is a treaty obligation in Ontario and Doug Ford needs to stop this cruel game," Mamakwa said in a news release.

On Wednesday, the federal government announced $2 billion that will flow through the provinces to safely reopen schools. Another $112 million was promised for First Nations schools.

CBC News asked Ontario's Ministry of Education if any of the funding announced for the province would flow through to First Nations schools.

An emailed response from a spokesperson mentioned only the $112 million targeted specifically for First Nations, saying the ministry is looking for further details from the federal government "to support First Nation partner access to this funding and ensure First Nation schools in Ontario have the resources they need to support a safe return to school for educators, families, and students."

"The ministry recognizes that the current school closures have presented a new challenge for First Nations, especially those in northern and remote regions," said ministry spokesperson Ted Chang.

Mamakwa said the funding available for First Nations "falls far short" of what's needed.

In Northern Ontario alone, two First Nations organizations have asked for a total of $58 million from the federal government to reopen schools in 49 First Nations across northern Ontario and First Nations-run high schools in Thunder Bay and Sioux Lookout.

'More delays'

But Indigenous Services Canada said it will only consider funding requests from, or on behalf of, individual First Nations. It's a scenario that Nishnawbe Aski Nation deputy grand chief Derek Fox was hoping to avoid with the collective request submitted two months ago.

"There will be more delays [to the school year] if each individual community has to submit proposals," Fox told CBC News in an interview, adding that additional paperwork is an unnecessary burden on First Nations already stretched in coping with the pandemic.

 "Our [joint] plan created efficiencies," Fox said. "If it's up to individual communities to each make their own plan, it's possible they could cancel the first semester" at some schools on reserve.

Northern Nishnawbe Education Council, which operates two First Nations high schools in northwestern Ontario is reopening to distance learning only in September.

Education director Dobi-Dawn Frenette said she is hoping the province will step up with ongoing funding for personal protective equipment (PPE) for staff and students. 

There's also the cost of shipping PPE, cleaning supplies and materials to support physical distancing in schools or temporary distance learning sites, that neither level of the government has specifically addressed. Those costs quickly added up for communities without road access.

If the high schools are to reopen to in-person learning in October, as hoped, Frenette said more money will be needed for health screening and security at the entrances.

'Re-profile' budgets

In an email to CBC News, Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) said First Nations can tap into their regular school budgets for school safety measures.

"...elementary/secondary education funding can be re-purposed to any activity that supports students in returning to learning this fall." For example ISC said First Nations could "re-profile" transportation budgets to support at-home learning.

As well, ISC said First Nations in Ontario have received $37.5 million from the Indigenous Community Support fund which could be used to help with reopening schools safely.

Matawa Education and Care Centre in Thunder Bay, Ont. has been taking advantage of that flexibility in funding since the pandemic closed schools last spring, said principal Brad Battiston.

But with no end in sight to the need for pandemic protocols, Battiston said it's time to "have an identified stream of funding supports" so First Nations students can be safe from COVID-19 and learn at the same time.

Both levels of government have a responsibility to create those funding streams, Mamakwa said.

"[Premier Doug] Ford must move now to provide First Nations children with a safe start to the school year," he said.