Canada's federal budget watchdog says B.C.'s First Nations schools need a 50-per-cent increase in capital funding just to keep from crumbling.
At the same time, local officials are worried that even existing funding for running First Nations schools, achieved through long-negotiated agreements in recent years, may be at risk as the federal government prepares new legislation.
The Parliamentary Budget Officer's report was issued Thursday, and says reserve schools in B.C. require $39-million in this fiscal year to sustain their infrastructure.
The federal government, which is responsible for paying for the upkeep and operation of the schools that are owned by First Nations, is providing just $26-million.
And given the high levels of population growth among First Nations, the report says it will take $47-million by 2028-29 to keep the schools in their current shape.
Debbie Jeffrey, executive director of the First Nations Education Steering Committee, says the report confirms what her organization has been saying for years.
FNESC is an umbrella organization for the approximately 130 reserve schools in B.C.
"I'm hoping Canadians become engaged in the conversation: Why do First Nations children not have access to schools similar to children in the provincial system?" Ms. Jeffrey said.
The study was requested by Jean Crowder, the NDP MP for Nanaimo-Cowichan and her party's critic for aboriginal affairs. It follows a 2009 PBO report that said the more than 500 schools on reserves across Canada were being underfunded by at least $200-million annually.
"This was a way to check in to have some hard numbers to say the government is not doing its job," Ms. Crowder said.
"The point is that if they don't put the resources into [aboriginal education], it's not going to achieve its goals."
The PBO study said the funding requirement for B.C.'s First Nations schools would decline to $30-million in 15 years if the schools operated at the same capacity as those run by the province.
It found that the native schools in B.C. are currently underutilized, operating at an average capacity of 57 per cent, with one school operating at a capacity of just 7 per cent.
Provincially run schools, by comparison, operate at an average capacity of 87 per cent.
Making better use of existing native schools, says the PBO, would reduce the amount of school infrastructure that is required and thus reduce the cost of maintaining them.
But Ms. Jeffrey said this is a misleading comparison, because provincial schools are able to consolidate in response to changing demographics much easier than isolated reserve schools are. "The provincial system has the flexibility and fluidity to accommodate and address fluctuations in population by doing things such as closing schools," Ms. Jeffrey said. "Whereas in a small remote community, that flexibility isn't there."
The report comes in the midst of preparation for a new First Nations education act in Ottawa. The new legislation will "put in place standards and structures to improve education for First Nations students, and would put in place the mechanisms required to provide stable and predictable funding for First Nations schools," said an e-mail from Andrea Richer, a spokeswoman for Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt.
This has B.C.'s aboriginal education officials worried, because in recent years they have made progress on ensuring sufficient funding for schools in the province, and there's no guarantee the federal legislation would protect those gains. "In fact, the Parliamentary Budget Officer said that British Columbia is probably in better shape than in other parts of the country," Ms. Crowder said.
In September, 2012, the Tripartite Education Framework Agreement in British Columbia came into effect, which Ms. Jeffrey said ensured First Nations schools in B.C. would receive operational funding using the same metrics as provincial public schools do. (This operational funding is separate from the capital funding covered in the PBO report.)
"A lot of work has been done in British Columbia, and we have established a long-standing partnership with both levels of government," Ms. Jeffrey said. "So we are actually quite concerned about the potential of this proposed legislation to disrupt what we have been working so hard to build."
Ms. Jeffrey said the first draft of the bill is coming in August, according to correspondence she has had with Mr. Valcourt. "It is the middle of July and we have yet to see what's in there. So there's lots of room for concern."