Education as a treaty right

Access to education hindered for aboriginals

Chief Donovan Fontaine thinks funding for aboriginal education is the key to self-governance and therefore should not be restrained by loans. Mark Reimer

Access to education is a treaty right, but the government of Canada doesn’t act like it is. A recent move from funding through bands and councils to the student loans program has many people upset.

Chief Donovan Fontaine of the Sagkeeng First Nation has been included in some discussions on the topic.

“We don’t want a loan program,” he said. “Education is our future. It’s our way out.”

Sagkeeng First Nation, also known as Fort Alexander, is about two hours north-east of Winnipeg.

Fontaine notes that in his community of 7,000 people, there is only one post-secondary counsellor.

“There are no resources” for people who have questions about post-secondary schooling, Fontaine said.

Dennis White Bird, treaty commissioner for Manitoba, is certain the issue is already closed, without ever getting the response of those it affects most.

“It’s an old issue already (in that) we don’t have a say in it.”

He feels that a treaty is a sacred agreement that cannot be ignored or changed.

“Treaties were made in the presence of our creator,” he said. “They were made and then they were shelved, so they need to be followed up on and implemented.”

Others feel government bureaucracy makes it easier to ignore the treaty right to education.

“There is no specific judicial authority on aboriginal education,” said Paul Chartrand, director of the aboriginal governance program at the University of Winnipeg, noting that if there were, the issue might not be as major.

If the treaties were respected, funding for education would remain in the hands of the Aboriginal Peoples, not the Canadian government, Chartrand said.

The new federal budget does not meet the needs.

“There’s a blind spot.”

“Treaties can be looked at as the foundation for a new normative world,” Chartrand said.

The issue is a conflicted one.

Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) provides funding for aboriginal students through their Post-Secondary Student Support Program (PSSSP). The program has a two per cent cap on annual funding raises.

In 2007, an INAC formative evaluation said the two per cent cap wouldn’t be enough for the growing aboriginal population.

INAC could not be reached for comment before press time.

The Canadian Federation of Students considers this to be a major roadblock. They organized an emergency conference Jan. 22 at the University of Winnipeg, where Fontaine was a speaker and Chartrand attended.

Seraph-Eden Boroditsky, co-president of the Aboriginal Students Association at the University of Manitoba, feels this issue cannot be ignored.

“The cap is slightly archaic,” she said. “It doesn’t cover inflation, the population growth or the rise in tuition.”

She said lifting the cap would be an important step towards enhanced self-governance. According to Boroditsky, education should be free for everybody, but the aboriginal population has already made its investment.

“We’ve already paid for it when the treaties were signed,” she said.

For Chartrand, control over education funding is a primary human right for Aboriginal Peoples, included in self-determination.

“There’s no room for debate on this issue,” Chartrand said. “Indigenous people should have control over their education.”

Published in Volume 63, Number 19 of The Uniter (February 5, 2009)

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