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First Nations education bill could help skills shortage: report

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Author argues that controversial Bill C-33 could help aboriginals nab higher-skilled jobs.

By: Kim Nursall

Staff Reporter

A new report on aboriginal education argues that while a controversial federal bill might not be perfect, it may be the country’s best shot at shoring up reserve schools and injecting new life into Canada’s workforce.

The C.D. Howe Institute report, entitled “Are we making progress? New evidence on aboriginal education in provincial and reserve schools,” analyzed high school incompletion rates using data from the 2011 census.

Author John Richards found that between the 2006 and 2011 censuses, that rate fell substantially for young adult Métis and First Nations students living off-reserve (to 30.2 per cent from 37.8 per cent), while the on-reserve incompletion rate remained high, with only a slight decline (to 58.0 per cent from 61.1 per cent).

While Richards noted there is great variation in student performance at Canada’s 500 reserve schools, he gave them an overall report card of “inadequate, need to make major improvements.” That’s where Bill C-33, also known as “the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act,” comes into play.

“Providing a legislative foundation to reserve schools is important and, while it is not a panacea, the proposed federal legislation, Bill C-33, is a worthwhile reform,” Richards, a professor at Simon Fraser University, told the Star.

One of the reasons Richards supports the bill is that in B.C., where reserve schools are organized into province-wide associations with the characteristics of provincial school districts, the high school incompletion rates are the lowest in the country (41 per cent).

Although Richards said it’s unclear exactly why B.C.’s rates are so much lower, he thinks it’s probable the provincial associations that help set goals in core academic subjects and cultural education have something to do with it.

The fate of Bill C-33 is in limbo after the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Shawn Atleo, resigned on May 2. Introduced in April, the bill, while supported by Atleo, has drawn criticism from other First Nations leaders, who argue it strips away their rights to educate their children and gives the federal government too much control.

When he resigned, Atleo said he didn’t want his support for the bill to distract from proposed changes to First Nations education. The federal Conservative government said it will hold off on taking the bill any further without speaking to the next AFN leader.

For Gord Peters, grand chief of Ontario’s Association of Iroquois and Allied Indians, Bill C-33 is a slap in the face regarding aboriginals’ ability to raise their children. “It doesn’t recognize real control of our community,” he told the Star. “In fact, what it does, it gives more power to the government than the government has had before.”

“We’re calling on Canada to come and negotiate with us fairly and upfront,” he said. “They’ve grossly underfunded First Nations communities for 20 years … Yes we need the money (offered in Bill C-33), but certainly not under the conditions that they’ve offered it.”

Faith Mckay, 25, grew up on the Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug reserve 600 kilometres north of Thunder Bay. She, like Peters, thinks Bill C-33 “needs a lot of work,” but reserve schools do as well.

“When I went to high school on my reserve, I found it to be really boring because it was work that was over a decade old,” she told the Star. “I needed to study on an academic level but I had to leave my reserve for that. It’s a scary thought to leave home, your family and go to a city or town to live with strangers, not knowing if they’ll take good care of you, give you a good home.”

Mckay said the school would often run out of materials, and when teachers visited the community her and her peers sometimes felt talked down to because they were perceived as “not smart.”

Overall, Mckay found it a frustrating place to learn.

Richards thinks Bill C-33 shows that the federal government “cannot abandon its responsibility to legislate so that . . . children enjoy better options for a decent education.”

Completing high school may be the “low rung on the education ladder,” he said, but those without it, both aboriginals and non-aboriginals have an average employment rate below 40 per cent. That rate rises by more than 25 per cent for those with high school.

“Workers with more education usually earn more, and that is true for aboriginals as much as non-aboriginals,” he said. “The low level of aboriginal education is a big barrier to training skilled workers for the next generation.”

A report by TD Bank last year stressed that Canada needs to ensure aboriginals achieve the level of education required to participate in the “knowledge-based” economy, noting aboriginals are seen as a potential source of additional skilled labour.

The notion of a looming skills shortage, although recently disputed by the federal budget watchdog, remains a top concern for employers.

Even if Canada doesn’t face a crisis regarding skills mismatches, Peters, while adamantly against Bill C-33 in its current form, agreed that something needs to be done to shore up reserve schools and graduate aboriginal students with a strong foundation.

“We don’t want to just educate our children to get them into construction jobs, building roads and mining. We want to get them ready for the arts and sciences,” he said.

With files from The Canadian Press

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