Manitoba First Nations need to deal with their dismal education record. The future of these communities and the provincial economy depends on it.
Two C.D. Howe Institute studies shed some light on the problem.
The first study is quite recent and found that Manitoba First Nations had the worst record of six provinces. According to the study, 63% of Manitoba First Nations students fail to graduate from high school.
The next study was released in 2010 and highlighted some of the demographic challenges confronting Manitoba. A new wave of baby boomers is set to retire and the upcoming decade will see only a modest expansion of Manitoba's available workforce. Most of the net increase will come from young job-seeking Aboriginals. The demographic boom of young Aboriginals will present a tremendous challenge and opportunity for Manitoba's economy.
Among Canadian provinces, Manitoba is matched by Saskatchewan in having the largest Aboriginal population. It is about 15% of the population, according to the 2006 Census.
The high rates of dropouts, however, presents a challenge for tapping into this young potential.
Clearly, Manitoba First Nations and governments need to do something to curb this high dropout rate.
So far, the best option by far is the proposed First Nations Education Act.
Manitoba First Nations should support the federal government's overhaul of the First Nations education system.
But, all the government has received from Manitoba indigenous leaders is criticism and the usual obstinate refusal.
For example, several weeks ago, when asked about the proposed First Nations Education Act, Derek Nepinak, grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, had only negative things to say about it
"When you read between the lines you see the minister is granted a tremendous amount of authority under the new legislation, with none of the liability," Nepinak said to media.
"It's a continuation of the paternalistic colonialist type of legislation that we've been subjected to under the Harper regime."
"Mr. Harper's new legislation is a trip back down residential school processes and the elimination of Indian control over Indian education," he said.
This type of rhetoric is unhelpful. The priority should be helping First Nations students in Manitoba, who are falling farther and farther behind.
The proposed Education Act presents some governance options for First Nations students.
One is for First Nations to operate schools directly; another is to establish and delegate the operation of schools to a First Nations education authority that would operate multiple schools on a number of reserves. Finally, a model envisions First Nations entering into agreements with provincial school boards to operate on-reserve schools or bus students to schools managed by provincial boards.
While the Act should go further and provide for voucher-type education programs and indigenous charter schools, it presents some viable working models, and includes accountability for results mechanisms.
Rather than refer back to the dark residential school days, Nepinak and others need to look at realistic educational options available right now and put the interests of First Nations students first.