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First Nation Schools 'skeptical' of funding promises

Cree programs languish

By Jason Warick, The Starphoenix

Waterhen Lake First Nation Counc. Ableheza Ernest says he's grown weary of federal government promises to fund on-reserve schools fairly.

"For sure, we're skeptical," Ernest said.

According to several estimates, First Nations schools receive thousands of dollars per student less than schools in Saskatoon and other municipalities. New Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Developmnent Minister Bernard Valcourt hinted late last week new federal funds could soon be on the way.

"I hope it's true. It can be done. Just sit down with us," Ernest said.

At Waterhen's Waweyikisik School north of Meadow Lake, more than 30 students are often crammed into each classroom. They can't afford to keep teachers with more than a few years experience. Parents work bingos to buy books for the library, and volunteer to serve as librarian.

And perhaps most importantly, while Saskatchewan's francophone and French immersion schools receive millions for cultural preservation, there is no funding for Waweyikisik's 239 elementary and high school students to experience even a basic Cree language program.

"Our language is disappearing, but we do what we can," he said.

Waweyikisik Principal Islam Konok studied the performance of Saskatchewan First Nations schools as part of his doctoral thesis, and said it's impossible to deny the impact of low funding.

"I saw it then, and I'm seeing it here now. We try our best to keep up, but it's not a good feeling," Konok said.

He noted Waterhen's students score well on various standardized tests, but the demands placed on teachers and staff are not sustainable.

Federal government officials initially disputed the figures when questioned several years ago. Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall joined First Nations leaders in calling for more federal on-reserve education funding.

In the spring of 2012, federal officials said funding would increase. Another $275 million was pledged to partially close the gap, but no new money arrived.

The government said the money would only flow if First Nations agreed to a host of new governance rules written without their input. Saskatchewan bands chafed at the conditions, saying equal school funding is a basic human right and must be remedied immediately.

This stalemate continued until last week, when Valcourt dropped a 2014 deadline for the new laws and said he's willing to negotiate.

"The consultation process is not finished and there is no deadline. We are only on the first draft of a bill," Valcourt said.

Saskatoon Tribal Council Chief Felix Thomas said First Nations people are right to be wary of imposed education laws, given the shameful history of residential schools.

Thomas called the funding issue "the elephant in the room" during any reform discussions. He said everyone has the same goal, so he is not sure why reserve schools continue to receive such poor treatment.

"Everybody wants the best education possible for First Nations children. Let's work from that," he said.

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