First Nations school denied provincial funding, administrator says

An Anishinaabe immersion school in Kenora, Ont., is a success with students and parents, but it can't convince the government to fund it.

Anishinaabe Immersion school in Kenora, Ont., tripled its enrolment since opening in 2014

Nearly half of the students at Kiizhik School live in Kenora, Ont., but receive no provincial education funding because the Anishinaabe immersion school is operated by a First Nations organization. (Bimose Tribal Council)

An Anishinaabe immersion school in Kenora, Ont., is a success with students, but it can't convince the government to fund it.

Kiizhik School opened in 2014 and quickly tripled its enrolment. About half of the students live on nearby reserves, so the federal government pays their tuition.

But the provincial government will not pay tuition for the other students — about 30 — who live in the city unless the school enters into "reverse tuition agreements" with local school boards. 

"It's frustrating because these parents and caregivers pay education taxes to Ontario like everyone else", said Charlene Mandamin, the chairperson of the Bimose Tribal Council, which operates Kiizhik School.

Neither the Catholic nor public boards in Kenora have been willing strike an agreement on tuition, she said. CBC News requested comment from directors of both boards and had not yet received a response at the time of publication.

"We take pride in our school, the language, the culture, the teachings," Mandamin said. "We just want to be at the same level of any other school board."

$1M shortfall

Kiizhik school is short $1 million after two years without a tuition agreement, she said, but determined to continue with its unique programming where students start the day with a smudging ceremony, prayers and traditional drumming and have regular visits from knowledge keepers from their own First Nations.

"Just re-instilling that pride," she said. "They always have that pride, but reinforcing who they are and where they come from, that they're Anishinaabe."

The provincial tuition would pay for additional supports for students and services such as busing for students, Mandamin said.

"It's sad that in an era of reconciliation we need to battle for something as fundamental as the education of our children," said Chief Lorraine Cobiness of Ochiichagwe'babigo'ining (Dalles) Ojibway Nation in a news release on Monday.

'Rights violations'

The Kiizhik school is located close to the former Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School and the history of tragedies in First Nations education is close to the surface for many involved.

"The school believes that again, there are rights violations occurring via the jurisdictional wrangling and the ongoing resistance Kiizhik is facing," said the news release from Bimose Tribal Council.

Mandamin and other school administrators recently met with Ontario's Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation to press their case for provincial funding.

Questions from CBC News to that ministry were redirected to the Ministry of Education.

"The issue of education service agreements is an important one," said a Ministry of Education spokesperson in a written statement. "However, the Ministry of Education is not a party to education service agreements or reverse education service [tuition] agreements. These are agreements that involve local school boards and First Nations and are addressed directly through a process between these parties."

Mandamin hopes that bringing the success of Kiizhik School and the problems with funding into the public eye, people will pressure their local school board trustees ensure it is properly funded.

Last year a coroner's inquest into the deaths of seven First Nations students in Thunder Bay, Ont., recommended that Ontario and Canada revise their policies so that First Nations students could receive funding to attend First Nations schools, regardless of where their parents are living.