Published by Senator Lillian Eva Dyck on 10 February 2009
This country was made possible by treaty agreements and commitments constituted more than a hundred years ago between the Crown and First Nations people. Sadly, the spirit and intent of these agreements, which were meant to ensure the well-being of First Nations, have not been honored, and consequently, most First Nations live in poverty, suffer poor health and lack good education.
The present Aboriginal population in Canada is young and growing rapidly. It’s estimated that 50 percent of the Aboriginal population is under the age of 25 years. With the strength of those numbers we will see a sea of change in Canada, especially in those provinces like Saskatchewan and Manitoba with large Aboriginal populations. Managing this change is essential to Canada’s prosperity in helping First Nations achieve equality. Education is one of the best ways to escape the cycle of poverty.
Our Chiefs and Elders had the wisdom to include education as an integral part of treaty negotiations. Our right to education is inscribed in treaties and it must be honoured. That is to say, treaty rights are sacrosanct.
Presently, the right to a post secondary education is being eroded as the Federal Government of Canada fails to live up to their fiduciary obligations to First Nations people. In 1996, an arbitrary 2 percent funding cap was instituted for funding to all programs and services for First Nations. Thus, the funding for education for First Nation students has been capped at 2 percent per year, while the number of applicants has increased by thousands with an estimated 10,500 students on waiting lists for post-secondary funding.
First Nations people are still waiting for educational programs, facilities, and investments of the same quality and quantity that other Canadians enjoy. First Nations youth are seeking equality of opportunity so they too can dream, succeed, and create a brighter future. We want our children to grow up healthy, possess the ability to dream, and pursue opportunities to realize their full potential. We want our children to grow up to be doctors, lawyers, scientists, teachers, etc. Why should First Nations children not have equal opportunities?
The current state of Aboriginal education is unacceptable. Aboriginals lag behind non-Aboriginals at all levels of education. For example, in 2001, only 5 percent of the Canadian Aboriginal population had a bachelor’s degree compared to 16 percent for non-Aboriginals. These figures reinforce the idea that achieving educational equity for Aboriginals will require improving and even transforming the educational environment to ensure that every First Nation student can succeed and achieve his or her potential. It should be noted that in some parts of Canada, such as in Saskatchewan, the regional economies will suffer unless the Aboriginal population which compromises 15 percent of the population becomes better educated and more employable.
One of the biggest barriers to university education is finances. It’s imperative that the funding cap of 2 percent in the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs be removed on post-secondary education. It’s unacceptable with our growing population. The removal of that 2 percent cap would allow some of the several thousands of Aboriginal students on waiting lists to get band funding to enter into a post-secondary program and realize their dreams.
The challenges First Nations people face are complex and require many actions. Getting a good education is the only way our people will find an equal and just place in Canada. Achieving post-secondary credentials (diplomas, degrees, etc) is one of the best ways to break the cycle of poverty and despair.