First Nations education a cash-strapped 'non-system,' bureaucrats tell minister

First Nations schools on reserves are in such a dire state that federal bureaucrats in charge of the file have taken to calling it a "non-system," a striking admission that many Indigenous students are being ill-served by the very schools these public servants oversee.

NDP says Liberals are spending $800M less on First Nations education than originally promised

Federal bureaucrats have told Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett that the First Nations education program is a 'non-system' that requires a major funding injection. The NDP says the Liberal government is backtracking on its campaign commitments by spreading money over five years instead of the promised four. (Ben Nelms/Reuters)

First Nations schools on reserves are in such a dire state that federal bureaucrats in charge of the file have taken to calling it a "non-system," a striking admission that many Indigenous students are being ill-served by the very schools these public servants oversee.

A "secret" briefing note prepared for Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett, and obtained through access to information, says First Nations schools are failing students not only because of a dearth of federal funding but because "many communities lack the educational systems and structures required to close the educational outcome gap."

Most of the individually run, band-operated schools don't have proper curriculum development, teacher training, testing and quality assurance and the larger support structures — like a school board, elected trustees or an education ministry — that make schools work, the briefing note from November says.
School children rally on Parliament Hill for more funding for First Nations education back in 2013. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Experts have also pointed to the near total absence of any formal plan to improve educational outcomes as another roadblock to success. Indeed, the short- and medium-term goal of the department is for band schools to simply record "incremental improvements in academic achievement year-over-year."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has made First Nations education a cornerstone of his Liberal leadership. The first announcement he made at the outset of last year's election campaign was a $2.6-billion commitment over four years to boost spending to bring on-reserve students in line with their non-Indigenous counterparts, something the public service says is needed right away.

"Additional funding [is] required to support a new system more comparable to provincial systems," the 14-page briefing note cautions the minister, conceding that funding levels are "significantly higher" for provincial schools in remote and northern locations than what Indigenous and Northern Affairs provides First Nations schools in similar locales.

Cindy Blackstock, the executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, said it's disingenuous for the federal government to describe First Nations education as a "non-system," because it actually designed the provision of education and unloaded schooling on bands throughout the 1980s without the proper support structures.

Grading the Gap

CBC News is investigating the quality of First Nations education on- and off-reserve in the wake of the federal Liberal government's pledge to spend $2.6 billion over five years on K-12 learning.

  • Follow our Grading the Gap coverage on CBCNews.ca, CBC Radio One, CBC News Network and The National.
  • Read stories about students on our interactive page: Grading the Gap

It has also commissioned many expert studies and yet has done little to implement their recommendations, she said.

"They have known about these problems for decades and they've not dealt with them. Why isn't the federal government doing better when it knows better?"

Funding crunch

The lack of clear educational standards is exacerbated by a money crunch that has left First Nations schools desperate for stable and predicable funding.

Indigenous programming has been hampered by a two per cent cap on annual spending increases since it was imposed by former finance minister Paul Martin in the 1990s. This spending has been well short of population and inflation growth rates. (The First Nations school-age population has grown 29 per cent since 1997.)

The Liberal government has committed to spending $2.6 billion over five years — not the promised four — on First Nations kindergarten to Grade 12 education. The funding is also heavily back-loaded, with 25 per cent of it not set to roll out until 2020-21, a year after the next election. (CBC News)

Public servants in the department have been raising red flags to their political masters for years. A briefing note penned in 2014 advised the Harper government to immediately lift the cap and stop dipping into First Nations infrastructure money to keep social programs for Indigenous children afloat.

"For the [kindergarten to Grade 12] education program to maintain provincial comparability and NOT draw on other program funds, new investments are required, including a 4.5 per cent escalator on all education funds going forward," the note reads.

Theirincremental approach to equality never achieves equality.Children don't have incremental childhoods.- Cindy Blackstock, executive director, First Nations Child and Family Caring Society

The Liberal First Nations education campaign promise has already been partly broken as $50 million Trudeau pledged for post-secondary education was excluded from this year's budget.

The money for kindergarten to Grade 12 education has also been spread out over five years — instead of the promised four — which amounts to an $800 million cut. The funding is also heavily back-loaded, with 25 per cent of it not set to roll out until 2020-21, a year after the next election.

"If you're serious ... you make those big budget investments in your first couple of years," Blackstock said. "They have used this 'It's a first step' narrative to protect themselves. But their incremental approach to equality never achieves equality. Children don't have incremental childhoods."

'Their incremental approach to equality never achieves equality. Children don't have incremental childhoods,' said Cindy Blackstock, executive director of First Nations Child and Family Caring Society. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

But in the briefing note obtained by CBC News, the department tells Bennett that committing more money, as First Nations advocates have been asking for, is only part of the solution.

"New investments alone will not improve outcomes, but increased funding is an important and necessary piece of the puzzle. Other factors relating to socio-economic conditions and the fact that many First Nations schools exist as a 'school house model' are also important factors that affect student outcomes," the report says, referring to the absence of an actual system to support individual schools.

The minister's office didn't provide comment in time for publishing, but the minister told CBC News Thunder Bay last week the government is open to changes to First Nations schooling.

"In this budget, there was money to build education systems and that's where we know we've got to go in terms of listening to educators to develop those systems, whether that's changing the school year, whether that's curricula changes, professional development."

Literacy, numeracy results disappoint

The goal of Indigenous Affairs is to have First Nations students reach provincial education standards, but standardized testing results reveal there is still much work to be done.

In 2013-14, only 21 per cent of on-reserve boys in Ontario reached or exceeded provincial literacy standards, while a paltry 18 per cent were competent in mathematics, according to statistics produced by the department. The figures were marginally higher for girls.

I don't know if you could find literacyrates in the world that low, except for maybe sub-Saharan Africa.- Charlie Angus, NDP Indigenous affairs critic

"I don't know if you could find literacy rates in the world that low, except for maybe sub-Saharan Africa," NDP Indigenous affairs critic Charlie Angus said in an interview with CBC News. "How many centuries is it going to take to get them up to a provincial standard?"

The numbers were not nearly as low for Indigenous students taught off-reserve. The results showed 38 per cent of all students in grades 3 and 6 achieved Ontario's standard for numeracy, while 50.5 per cent met literacy standards. The results were still below those of non-Indigenous students.

Graduation rates for Indigenous students taught in Ontario's public system in 2013-14 were also much higher: more than 70 per cent compared to 45 per cent for those on reserves.

Students use computers at Vezina Secondary School in the Attawapiskat First Nation in northern Ontario. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Blackstock said this is proof that there isn't something "intrinsically" wrong with First Nations students, but rather poor outcomes are the result of "profound underfunding."

"I'm a common sense girl who grew up in the bush and it doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that these schools are in a total state of disrepair. It's absolutely clear that conditions are so poor. If we applied those same conditions to kids in Toronto, over time, we'd see the same results. It's the conditions that we're putting them in. That's what's so tragic to me."

She said First Nations kids have access to the Internet and travel beyond the borders of their communities, so they know how others are learning.

These days, kids in Indigenous communities have access to the internet and travel and are more aware of the discrepancies in the quality of education services around the country. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

"These kids know that other kids are succeeding. The children internalise it as their own failure. 'I'm not smart enough. I'm not good enough. It's our community, we're losers.'"

As a result, she said, federally funded First Nations schools have ceded large portions of their enrolment to provincially run schools because they are seen to be better run.

Indeed, 33 per cent of First Nations learners normally living on a reserve now attend provincially operated or private schools.

'The department is just lying'

"First Nations schools just can't compete with the provincial school system. It just doesn't happen," said Perry Bellegarde, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations.

For example, if a student attends the First Nations school in the northern Ontario community of Attawapiskat, the federal department will pay $8,000 to the school. If that same student transfers 500 kilometres south to a public school in Timmins, the department will pay the provincial system $16,000, according to figures provided by NDP MP Charlie Angus.

The tuition associated with attending public schools is covered by the department because the education of status Indians is the sole responsibility of the federal government.

The graphic above illustrates how much the Department of Indigenous Affairs says it spends on average for each Indigenous student in kindergarten to Grade 12. The department doesn't break down how much it spends for Indigenous students taught in provincial school systems compared to those taught at schools on reserves. (CBC News)

The department has publicly rejected these comparisons in the past. In fact, a senior bureaucrat testified under oath at the recent Thunder Bay, Ont., inquiry into student deaths that there isn't a gap, and if there is a gap, it's too hard to quantify.

In the Harper era, public servants routinely pointed to statistics that show comparable per capita spending levels nationwide — $12,233 per student in a provincial school versus $15,290 for a student on a First Nations reserve. Others, including the Fraser Institute, have argued that claims of a gap are grossly exaggerated.

But other experts say the government's figures obscure the unique spending challenges faced by First Nations schools in remote locations with most students from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

Blackstock says the department's numbers are also misleading because 30 per cent of the funding is proposal-based and requires an application, so it isn't guaranteed to all schools in need.

Children play in a playground in the Attawapiskat First Nation in northern Ontario. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Don Drummond, former Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty's budget czar, and an expert on Indigenous education at Queen's University, says there's a funding gap and it's likely closer to 30 per cent in most jurisdictions.

"The proof is in the pudding: The Liberals gave a fairly large budget increase. If there wasn't a gap, why did they do that?"

Angus figures the gap is actually "30 to 50 to 100 per cent, depending on where you go."

"It varies all over, from region to region," the NDP critic said. "That speaks to inequity in the system. You just can't figure it out."


John Paul Tasker

Senior reporter

J.P. Tasker is a journalist in CBC's parliamentary bureau who reports for digital, radio and television. He is also a regular panellist on CBC News Network's Power & Politics. He covers the Conservative Party, Canada-U.S. relations, Crown-Indigenous affairs, climate change, health policy and the Senate. You can send story ideas and tips to J.P. at john.tasker@cbc.ca.