Aboriginal education funding '10 years late': Martin

24 March 2014

Chris Plecash

The federal government has been praised for recently-announced investments in aboriginal education in this year's federal budget, but the initiative is "10 years late," says former prime minister Paul Martin, who struck his own agreement with Canada's aboriginal peoples in 2005 only to have it abandoned after the Conservatives formed government the following year.

"They're 10 years late. By the time this money starts to flow, a full decade will have passed since Kelowna," Mr. Martin told The Hill Times in a recent interview. "In that 10 years, there has been a huge population increase, all of whom, on reserve and in the case of the Inuit, have been condemned to inadequate education compared to what other Canadians receive."

Mr. Martin devoted a considerable amount of political capital towards establishing a new deal for Canada's aboriginals in his brief, two-year tenure as prime minister from 2003 until 2005. Eighteen months of negotiations between the federal government, provinces, and indigenous leadership representing Canada's Inuit, Metis, and on and off-reserve First Nations culminated with the Kelowna Accord, an ambitious plan to bring aboriginal living standards in line with the rest of Canada by 2016.

The accord promised an unprecedented, initial investment of $5-billion over five years aimed at improving health, education, infrastructure, and economic opportunities for Canada's aboriginal communities. For education alone, the agreement promised $1.8-billion in new funding to improve educational outcomes for on and off reserve youth, with a goal of bringing aboriginal high school graduation rates in line with the national average and increasing the number of aboriginal post-secondary graduates by 50 per cent by 2016.

The plan never went ahead, though. By the end of 2005, the Conservative-dominated opposition brought down Mr. Martin's government in the midst of ongoing revelations from John Gomery's investigation of the Liberal sponsorship scandal. The Harper government changed course, abandoning the overarching plan and angering many aboriginal leaders who had participated in the extensive negotiations that led to the accord.

Now, nearly 10 years after the accord, the federal government has returned its attention to aboriginal education, pledging to introduce new legislation and funding to bring First Nations schools in line with provincial curriculum standards while also enabling First Nations to determine linguistic and cultural educational programming.
Although the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act has yet to be tabled in Parliament, this year's 
federal budget promises $1.25-billion in core funding for the act between 2016 and 2019; along with $160-million in funding over four years beginning in 2015 to implement the act. The budget also announced $500-million over seven years beginning in 2015 to improve First Nations school infrastructure.

"The amount that they've announced, 10 years later, is roughly the same as the initial down payment of Kelowna," Mr. Martin said. "The fact is that the money Kelowna was going to invest in education in 2006 was simply the first step. That was the first five years. We would be into the second half already."

Mr. Martin added that the fact that the Conservatives have introduced the funding now is an acknowledgement that they've been underfunding aboriginal education since they took office.

Canada's aboriginal population is the youngest, fastest growing segment of the population, but continues to face some of the highest poverty rates and lowest educational attainment rates in the country. Aboriginals accounted for 4.3 per cent of the Canadian population in 2011, according to the latest National Household Survey by Statistics Canada - a 20.1 per cent increase compared to 2006. Twenty-eight per cent of aboriginal Canadians were below the age 14 according to 2010 census figures.

"What kind of economic policy, let alone the immorality of it, deliberately under funds primary and secondary school education of the youngest, fastest growing segment of their population?" said Mr. Martin. "It's a breach of a right."

Despite the political defeat of the Kelowna Accord, and his government, Mr. Martin has continued to work on aboriginal education since retiring from political life in 2008. He established the Martin Aboriginal Education Initiative the same year he left politics. The organization focuses on improving educational outcomes for aboriginal elementary and secondary school students and includes a focus on entrepreneurship, financial literacy, and economic development.

The Martin Initiative's Aboriginal Youth Entrepreneurship Program has created its own textbook and curriculum to teach aboriginal secondary school students about business. More than 700 students across Canada have taken the program over the past five years, and it's currently offered by 28 high schools in seven provinces and the Northwest Territories. Mr. Martin said that whether or not students go on to careers in business, they come out of the program with greater confidence and awareness of opportunities.

"Whether you go into business or not, it's crucial to understand what the economy is all about. The best way to teach the economy and show them what those opportunities are is through entrepreneurship," said Mr. Martin, who served as Canada's finance minister for more than eight years.

He often speaks with students before and after they've taken the two-year program, and said that he's is amazed by the differences he sees in students by the time they complete the course.

"The difference isn't just one year-you can talk to them about the economy, what it takes to start a business, where they made their mistakes. The sense of confidence and their ability to deal with you is dramatically different," he said.

cplecash@hilltimes.coms

Twitter: @chrisplecash

The Hill Times

Online: http://www.hilltimes.com/news/policy-briefing/2014/03/24/aboriginal-education-funding-10-years-late-martin/37930