Roberta Jamieson: Education equality the key to First Nations future

We cannot let another generation of aboriginal youth be excluded from full participation in a modern and well-funded education system, or condemn them to a future of social assistance, former Ontario ombudsman Roberta Jamieson argues.

We are at an important crossroads in our country. The Idle No More movement has shown itself to be grassroots and growing. Young indigenous people are finding their voices and they are determined to be heard. More non-aboriginal Canadians are joining the chorus of concern about the state of indigenous relations.  

The government and Canadians are concerned about growing dissent. And they should be.

Historic grievances and current inequities are fuelling a growing climate of frustration and conflict. The ill-informed or "fringe" elements of our society are quick to invoke stereotypes, and dismiss the issues as having no merit or worse. For those who understand and work to address these issues every day as I do, it is easy to be frustrated. 

But I am more convinced than ever that we must find a way forward. We must address the issues resulting from our shared history and provide indigenous peoples with the opportunity to make their individual contributions to their own communities and to Canada.

It is important to provide effective mechanisms to resolve historic grievances and create partnerships for the future. 

However, we must not wait to take action to address the often sad state of circumstances in indigenous communities, notably in education. We cannot let another generation of youth be excluded from full participation in a modern and well-funded education system, or condemn them to a future of social assistance.

In Canada, there are a lot of what I’ll charitably call "comfortable myths" about the support received by indigenous students seeking a post-secondary education. 

Unfortunately, there are still people who believe that First Nations students receive "cradle-to-grave" support for their education and that education is free to all indigenous students. These same people just don’t understand why students don't do better given all that taxpayer support! 

Yes, some students receive some support. Is there enough money? No. Does the funding that is available provide the type of assistance that so many students need? No. What do First Nations parents say is the first priority for their children? A quality education.

I have had the honour of serving as a provincial ombudsman, mediator, lawyer and First Nations chief in my career. Currently, as president and CEO of Indspire, I focus my efforts on improving indigenous access to education. 

We celebrate positive indigenous role models through our Indspire Awards, conduct high school career conferences and run an indigenous mentorship program. 

Our soon-to-be-launched Indspire Institute is an online resource for K-12 educators from coast-to-coast-to coast. 

What I see daily is that when provided the same support and opportunities that other Canadian kids enjoy, indigenous students do just as well — sometimes better — than the general Canadian population.

Investing in a better future

I also know taxpayers are increasingly sensitized to the fact that maintaining the status quo may be more expensive than investing in the future of indigenous youth. 

Ottawa school children rally on behalf of First Nations education on Parliament Hill in June 2012. (Sean Kilpatrick / Canadian Press)

If our current generation is educated and supported they will become achievers. They themselves will change their circumstances, their families, their communities. The entire country will be changed, and enriched for the betterment of all Canadians.

Indspire is the largest supporter of indigenous education at the post-secondary level, outside of the federal government. 

It has awarded more than $50 million in bursaries and scholarship awards to more than 14,000 First Nation, Inuit and Métis recipients across Canada.

Let's please all acknowledge that current resources for indigenous education in this country are insufficient. Serious, sustained investment must be made. Youth, as well as government and taxpayers, have every right to insist that funding be tied to deliverables.

The significant positive effect of an educated, trained indigenous labour force on Canada's emerging labour shortages will be a major contribution to Canada's economic health.

Last year, as part of Indspire's submission to the federal pre-budget consultations, I proposed a matching funds program for post-secondary indigenous education. I have recently reiterated this offer to the prime minister and minister of finance. 

If the federal government will provide an additional $50 million in bursary and scholarship funding, Indspire is confident corporate sponsors, supporters and individual Canadians will rise to the challenge.

That will mean more indigenous youth leaving high school for a post-secondary education. More indigenous doctors, health professionals, skilled tradespeople, and engineers. More indigenous people participating in the economy, contributing to their community's well-being and, yes, the country's economy.

The timing is right for a coming together to support a plan that will see indigenous students receive an education that is simultaneously supportive of their identity, culture, and language. I believe — that Canada and all Canadians — will be enriched by supporting the education of our indigenous youth, the fastest-growing demographic group in Canada.