MPP calls out province's free menstrual products plan for not including First Nations schools

The new program will see millions of donated pads distributed to Ontario’s public schools - but federally-funded provincial schools will not be included.

Ontario’s First Nations schools federally-funded and not included in new program

Sol Mamakwa says the province should extend a new program that distributes free pads so that it includes First Nations schools, even though those schools are funded federally. (Colin Perkel/The Canadian Press)

A northern Ontario MPP is calling out the province for failing to include First Nations schools in a new program that will distribute free menstrual products to students. 

Under the program, which was announced earlier this month, millions of pads donated by Shoppers Drug Mart will be distributed to Ontario's public schools. 

But the province's approximately 120 First Nations schools, which are funded by the federal government, will not receive any of them.

"These products are being offered for free to all school boards in Ontario, but are not available to First Nations school boards. Why is this government discriminating against First Nations schools?" asked Kiiwetinoong MPP Sol Mamakwa at Queen's Park this week. 

In an interview with the CBC, Mamakwa said the decision to leave out the First Nations schools is discriminatory and goes against Jordan's Principle, which was adopted by the House of Commons in 2007. 

Under that principle, the needs of a First Nations child requiring a government service take precedence over jurisdictional issues around which level of government pays for it.

"I did speak to some of the First Nations education authorities … and they're pretty disappointed to see jurisdictional issues being used to create divisions between provincial and First Nations schools," said Mamakwa. 

In response to Mamakwa's question at Queen's Park this week, Education Minister Stephen Lecce described the new menstrual products program as "a very positive step forward that should be celebrated" as a way to combat poverty.

He also described new funding and curriculum around Indigenous education — though that funding will not extend to First Nations schools, since they are federally run and funded. 

The Ministry of Education also indicated it had discussions with the federal government about the issue of free menstrual products for Indigenous students. 

Period products cost more in remote communities

Veronica Brown, founder of the Ontario chapter of Moon Time Sisters, was also disappointed to see that First Nations schools are not included in the program. 

Her organization gathers donated period supplies and distributes them in the province's northern and remote communities, where items like tampons and pads can cost significantly more than in the south. 

"It's just another example of a government institution putting a colonial barrier on Indigenous communities and Indigenous youth," said Brown. 

Veronica Brown poses with boxes packed with menstrual products set to head to some of Ontario's most remote communities. (Moon Time Sisters)

"Indigenous girls have periods too," said Mamakwa, who says he feels jurisdiction is being used as an excuse to avoid sharing the pads. 

Mamakwa also says he's especially frustrated given that the products are the result of a private donations. 

"It's not like these are provincial resources. It's a public-private partnership," he said. 

Gaps between 2 school systems 

What's also missing in the discussion, say educators, is a broader look at the gaps between the two school systems — and the ways they can hurt Indigenous students. 

Steve Styers, director of education for the Kettle and Stony Point First Nation, described the exclusion of First Nations schools from the pad program as "a typical scenario."

"A lot of services get cut off," he said, giving the example of students in his community who lose some services when they make the transition from provincial daycare to the federally-funded First Nations elementary school. 

"There is a bigger overall issue of racism and oppression with the two systems of schools," said Styers. 

Julia O'Sullivan, a professor at the University of Toronto's Dalla Lana School of Public Health and a former dean of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), agrees. 

"Most of the [First Nations] schools operate as independent entities — they don't have access to board-like resources," said O'Sullivan. 

She says the state of the schools varies widely depending on the resources available from the community they are in, but that the government's approach to them has been generally consistent over the years: "privileging provincially-run schools, and fighting over who will pay." 

"Who cares who pays for it?" she continued.

"These children and young people have a right to equitable health and education services."