Area Aboriginal schools make do despite funding gap

By Lindsay Briscoe

A KiHS student tests oxygen in water in her science class. Photo submitted by Keewaytinook Internet High School.

About 250 students from 13 First Nation communities North of Red Lake will attend Keewaytinook Internet High School (KiHS) this year. Since 1999 the Balmertown-based school has been offering Ontario Ministry of Education credits and although the school has been growing and improving its services over the years, it experiences under-funding like hundreds of other First Nations Schools across the country.

KiHS principal Darrin Potter says that students who receive their education in the North receive anywhere from $5,550 per student to $7,500 per student while the provincial average for non-Aboriginal students is about $10 thousand per student.

But for Potter, it’s not just an issue of lack of funding.

“The cost of doing business for most First Nation communities – especially in Northern Ontario – is also higher,” he says. “The focus should be on getting parity for funding and then looking at the cost associated with specialized services in the North too.”

Special education programs – such as speech pathology, for example – come at a high cost, he says.

“We have to have our staff and resources stretched so thin so that we can just touch on some of the services that we should be providing and give bare essentials,” says Potter.

Apart from KiHS, Keewaytinook Okimakinak (Northern Chiefs) operates two other schools in Pelican Falls and Thunder Bay where students fly-in to attend school away from home. While those two schools receive more funding for travel costs and room and board for students than KiHS, they are still under-funded.

Norma Keejick, executive director at Northern Nishnawbe Education Council, which runs Pelican Falls School, told the CBC in August that once the fly-in schools cover the salaries of their staff, there are two dollars left per student per day for food.

“It shouldn’t be this way,” Keejick told the CBC. “First Nations students shouldn’t have to make so many sacrifices for an education they are forced to leave home to receive.”

Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada – the government body responsible for administering funds to Aboriginal schools – is capped at a 2 per cent increase per year despite inflation and a steadily increasing Aboriginal population.

There has been increased political and media attention surrounding the funding gap issue – especially recently. In February of this year, the Harper government backed an NDP motion to close the funding gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal education. The decision came after Shannen Koostachin – a 13 year-old student from Attawapiskat First Nation – launched a campaign to improve education facilities in Aboriginal communities. At the time, the kids in her community were going to school in portable buildings on a toxic field.

Minister of Aboriginal and Northern Affairs John Duncan announced on Sept. 4 the Harper government’s plans to change the funding model to Aboriginal Representative Organizations and Tribal Councils.

“The Government of Canada is taking concrete steps to create the conditions for healthier, more self-sufficient Aboriginal communities,” said Minister Duncan. “We are changing the funding model…to make funding more equitable among organizations across the country, and ensure funding is focused on our shared priorities: education, economic development, on-reserve infrastructure, land management and governance programs.”

The Harper government says the changes will be introduced over the next two years and that from now on Tribal Councils will receive money based on the size of the population they serve and the range of services they offer. The Canadian government admits that it’s been 30 years since any major changes have been made to the Tribal Council funding program.

The Assembly of First Nations (AFN) will also be meeting in Ottawa from Oct. 2 – 4 to discuss Aboriginal education issues such as treaty rights, language and funding.

“First Nations are the youngest and fastest growing segment of the population,” says AFN National Chief Shawn Atleo. “Their future is Canada’s future.”

For now Principal Potter says that KiHS does the best job with the resources that it has.

“If we could just get a little more I think the success would speak for itself,” he says.

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