As a panel backed by the federal Conservative government deliberates the best way to improve the lamentable quality of first-nations education, a former prime minister says it would be morally unconscionable to accept the status quo.
In the final days of his Liberal government, Paul Martin signed a series of agreements with the provinces and aboriginal leaders, known as the Kelowna accord, that would have devoted $5-billion to better the lives of first nations, Métis and Inuit people. Education was at the top of the accord's priorities.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper took that off the table when his Conservatives took office in 2006. But first-nations education remains a major concern for Mr. Harper. And the panel, which held a final roundtable on Tuesday before writing its report, could set a template for change.
Mr. Martin said there should be no delays. "I certainly don't think we should accept that the next budget will not bring us to where Kelowna was," he said Tuesday in a telephone interview.
When he was the Liberal finance minister in the 1990s, Mr. Martin was a cost cutter. He wrestled a $46-billion federal deficit into a surplus. The Conservatives are now engaged in their own belt-tightening exercise as they try to shrink a deficit of more than $30-billion.
But Mr. Martin said the need to boost the quality of education in reserve schools to the level enjoyed by most Canadian children is too important to wait for better economic times.
As the founder of the Martin Aboriginal Education Initiative, "I've gone across the country and I am going to continue going across the country dealing with this issue," he said. "I have yet to meet a Canadian who has said to me that cutting the deficit on the back of a six-year-old's ability to read and write is acceptable."
Many of the more than 500 reserve schools in Canada are in deplorable condition. Even those that are not riddled with black mould and have reliable running water tend to lack basics like computers, libraries and special education.
The three-person panel, struck by the federal government and the Assembly of First Nations, has heard that additional funding is critical, but there is also a need, in many parts of Canada, for school-board-type structures that would allow the reserve schools to share resources.
Michael Mendelson, the senior scholar at the Caledon Institute of Social Policy and a former deputy minister in both Ontario and Manitoba, agrees that some type of school-board system is required.
"Money is necessary but not sufficient," said Mr. Mendelson, who was one of the participants at the panel's final roundtable. "There also has to be a system in place to make sure that the money can effectively be used to increase the quality of education."
Kevin Buffalo, who teaches at the Meskanahk Ka-Nipa-Wit school on the Montana First Nation in Hobbema, Alta., was also a roundtable participant.
Mr. Buffalo said the students who attend his school happen to be doing very well despite their lack of resources. But more funding would be helpful, said Mr. Buffalo, as would "a jurisdiction like a school board – and there is a push to that in our community – where we could access more resources like specialized teachers, like speech language pathologists."
Bertha Commonda, a member of the AFN's Elders Council, remembers going to a provincially run primary school in Quebec 70 years ago. "I read the history books and it wasn't very nice," said Ms. Commonda. Her people were not treated well in those pages, she said.
And even today, said Ms. Commonda, provincial schools offer nothing to make native people feel proud.
That's why the reserve schools are needed, and they have to be better funded, she said. Her message to the panel was simple: "Change history. Change for the better."