Aboriginal Rights

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This week the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal found that the federal government has discriminated against Aboriginal children by under-funding child welfare services compared to funding that provinces provide their non-aboriginal citizens. The Finance Minister is meeting this week with indigenous leaders to see what can be done to rectify the situation.

Anyone who has spent even a brief time working on aboriginal issues will not find this surprising unless – like members of the Fraser Institute or the previous government (which stalked and harassed the woman who brought the complaint) – they are in complete denial. Ever since Paul Martin put a 2% cap on growth in transfers to First Nations as a (supposedly temporary) budget restraint measure back in 1997, things have been growing worse and worse for aboriginal programs and services.

While populations have grown at the fastest rate of any group in the country and other cost factors have often risen faster than the cap, already underfunded communities have fallen farther and farther behind. According to an Auditor General’s report, funding for education is more than $2000 per student less for on-reserve schools than are received by provincial counterparts. To put that in perspective, First Nation schools – who generally don’t have the advantages of the shared services of a larger school district – receive 15-20% less funding than a provincial school a few miles down the road. It makes it difficult for them to recruit and retain teachers let alone offer the full range of programs kids need in a modern world.

Some commentators have said that the problems of aboriginal people will not be solved simply by opening our collective wallet and throwing money at them. This may be true – but opening our wallet is probably an excellent and necessary first step.

Real solutions are more complex but aren’t hard to envision. Aboriginal people need – first and foremost – to be funded at similar levels as other Canadians for core services but they also need to have the ability to take control of their own destinies by having full access to economic development opportunities and by establishing their own systems of governance.

In Nova Scotia, for example, the Mi’kmaw took control of education nearly twenty years ago through a formal self-government agreement with the federal and provincial governments. Their students now perform and graduate at rates higher than their provincial counterparts, meeting provincial curriculum standards and, at the same time, giving their children the opportunity to learn their own language and culture as part of the local school programming.

Solving the problems caused by over a century of deliberate and systemic discrimination under the paternalistic control of the Indian Act and the department it spawned will take more than a few extra dollars in the budget – it will require an entirely different approach based on the aboriginal and treaty rights that are recognized and affirmed in our constitution.

And that barely scratches the surface of what needs to be said but that’s ten minutes.

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