Friday, December 27, 2013

Of Just Societies and Aboriginal Affairs

Many years ago, when I was but a small child, Pierre Trudeau spoke of a "Just Society".  It is a noble, if somewhat lofty and abstract goal.
The Just Society will be one in which the rights of minorities will be safe from the whims of intolerant majorities. The Just Society will be one in which those regions and groups which have not fully shared in the country's affluence will be given a better opportunity. The Just Society will be one where such urban problems as housing and pollution will be attacked through the application of new knowledge and new techniques. The Just Society will be one in which our Indian and Inuit populations will be encouraged to assume the full rights of citizenship through policies which will give them both greater responsibility for their own future and more meaningful equality of opportunity. The Just Society will be a united Canada, united because all of its citizens will be actively involved in the development of a country where equality of opportunity is ensured and individuals are permitted to fulfil themselves in the fashion they judge best.
When I read this morning's article on Huffington Post about the broken education system on Canada's reserves, I was appalled.  I have long understood that our reserve system was badly broken on many levels.  When the level of spending on education for students on reserves is half what students elsewhere in Canada receive, there is a serious problem.
There is a wide gulf between how the federal government funds students on reserves and the spending per student in provincial school systems. Some estimates peg the amount of on-reserve funding at just half what other Canadian students receive.
This isn't a failing of one government.  It is a long term failure of Canada's governments - one that likely as not goes all the way back to governments that succeeded Sir John A. Macdonald.    Whether through deliberate action, or simple ignorance, Canada's governments have dropped this ball repeatedly.

It doesn't help that over time, attitudes such as the following expressed in the comments on Huffington Post have taken root:
they have educations handed to them books, lodging ,financial aid just because of their ethnicity way more than non natives have i wish i had all of these options handed to me then i could afford university
Unfortunately, people hear about the funding which is available to aboriginal students in Canada, they presume that everything is handed to them "on a platter".  When we are in a place such that high school students have to live away from their families during a key part of their development as human beings and in their education - a recipe for failure if there ever was one.

The proposed changes to aboriginal education released this fall appear to continue to perpetuate the already broken system:
Under the draft legislation, band councils would be allowed to operate schools directly, as many already do, but also to purchase services from regional or provincial school boards or even from the private sector. First Nations could also form education authorities that would oversee one or more schools in a region. 
But it would be the federal government that would set and enforce standards for schools on reserves. And the minister would retain the power to take over a school or school authority if an inspector finds problems.

The broken system here is patriarchal in form.  Where the "minister has the power to take over a school or school authority", there is an implicit distrust in place.  On one level, it may appear to be a reasonable piece of authority for the crown to wield, but in the broader context of relations with Canada's First Nations, it seems too much akin to the same kind of system that has been built on the assumption that First Nations are not "ready" or "able" to manage these programs themselves.

Given the political relationship between the Federal Government and Canada's First Nations, this is no trivial matter.  Certainly, money is part of the picture, but another part has to be addressing the degree of control that the Federal Government exerts over First Nations.  The Kelowna Accord (nearly a decade ago now) appears to have been an ambitious first step in addressing these issues.

Unfortunately, Harper pitched the whole thing in the trash, and since then has done little on the file.

By any measure, what we have today is far from just where First Nations are concerned.  Much needs to change.

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