Documents tabled in Parliament show that federal budget tightening over the last three years forced officials to siphon millions away from badly needed school repairs on reserves to deal with other fiscal pressures.
In all, about $143.2 million that was targeted to help repair hundreds of schools on reserve ended up being redirected by Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada.
The funding pressure for capital work at on-reserve schools is steep: The documents, a written response to questions from NDP aboriginal affairs critic Charlie Angus, show that 115 educational facilities on reserve need immediate attention that is estimated to cost about $2 billion over the next five years.
Angus said the funding issue is a long-standing problem that has led to the "giant hole in First Nations educational equity." The government, he said, should put a wall around any educational infrastructure funding to make sure that the cash can't be allocated to other areas.
"If this government is going to continue that pattern, they're going to continue the same rate of failure," Angus said.
Of the 439 on-reserve schools the federal government inspects, 269, or 61 per cent, are considered to be in good condition. About three per cent, or 15 schools, are considered to be in poor condition.
The department, in its response to Angus, says that planning work on schools isn't as straightforward as it might seem.
The process involves creating an overall investment plan for the First Nation community that outlines the capital projects eligible for federal funding. Then each of those projects is subject to funding approval, feasibility and design studies, procurement processes and, ultimately, construction. Each stage can change the cost of a project.
The entire process means that planned spending versus actual spending can vary from year to year. Targeted funding set aside in the 2012 and 2014 federal budgets has all been spent on school projects as of this year.
The federal government came under fire this week for its spending on First Nations education after a report that the Liberals decided against a plan to speed up education spending.
Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett defended the government's spending plan Friday in the House of Commons, saying that helping First Nations children get the best possible start in life begins with properly funding their education.
The Liberal's first budget earmarked $2.6 billion over the next five years for primary and secondary schooling in First Nation communities — although the government extended its window from the four years outlined in its campaign platform.
The funding also significantly ramps up in later years, with $801 million set to flow in the last year of the five-year plan, which falls outside the Liberal mandate.