- With a report by Jeff Keele
Jesse Owen from Pauingassi First Nation in northern Manitoba wants to graduate so he can get a job.
“My main objective is probably just to get into the trades,” said the Grade 12 student.
Like many others, he goes to high school in Winnipeg, because the school in his remote community only goes to Grade 9.
But spending 10 months away from their homes is an ordeal at times, principal Sheryl McCorrister said.
“There's a lot of family disconnect when these kids have to leave,” she said. “These young people, I have students here as young as 14, and I can't imagine leaving my family at that age.”
On Friday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper outlined a $2 billion plan to build schools and improve teaching standards. The plan includes money for infrastructure, properly certified teachers, cultural and language instruction, attendance requirements, and minimum on-reserve education standards equal to provincial ones.
Graduation rates for First Nations are among the lowest in Canada. Only half of high school students complete their basic education in some communities.
“I'm noticing the quality of curriculum in that remote communities are not the best,” McCorrister said.
Canada's top chief Shawn Atleo gave the deal a passing grade, but several First Nations leaders, including protesters who interrupted the announcement, disagree. They fear the plan will fail because consultations with other aboriginal leaders fell short.
“Like the harper government style, we've been excluded from the discussion,” said Leah Gazan, professor of aboriginal education at the University of Winnipeg.
Gazan says you can build all the schools you want and make attendance mandatory, but it won't fix the problem. “It's hard to focus on going to school when your main concern is who gets into the bathroom next, where you have massive overcrowding, where are you to do your homework next?”
Funding for most of the program won't start until 2016.