Debates of the Senate (Hansard)

1st Session, 41st Parliament,
Volume 148, Issue 126

Wednesday, December 5, 2012
The Honourable Noël A. Kinsella, Speaker

Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development

Funding for On-Reserve Education

Hon. Mobina S. B. Jaffer: Honourable senators, my question is for the Leader of the Government in the Senate. When the Human Rights Committee was in Saskatoon, we met with an amazing person by the name of Ray Ahenakew, the acting president of the Saskatchewan Institute of Applied Science and Technology for Aboriginal People. He said to us that the problem was children on reserves are not given education from the kindergarten to Grade 12 and, therefore, when we come to the cities, they are lost.


Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada’s own evaluation of elementary and secondary education on-reserve notes that First Nations’ responsibility for education has been restrained and that “without appropriate capacity and resources, many communities are unable to maximize the impact that First Nations control of education could have over something as fundamental as education of children.”

A famous philosopher of the 10th century said we respect education because it teaches us values. According to the most recent available census data, at least half of the on-reserve population — half — aged 25 to 34 does not have a high school leaving certificate, compared with 10 per cent for other Canadians of the same age.

Honourable senators, I stand here today and I will not for a minute say that is the problem of the Conservative government; I feel it is a problem for all Canadians, for our current government and for all of us. The fundamental injustice is the result of centuries of paternalism and systemic discrimination. What is most desperately needed now is leadership that respects values and empowers First Nations people. In recognizing Article 28 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, Canada committed to protecting “the right of the child to education, and with a view to achieving this right progressively and on the basis of equal opportunity . . .”

How will the government demonstrate leadership in promoting education, a fundamental human right for all First Nations children?

Senator LeBreton: I absolutely agree that it is a fundamental human right. Again, I point out to honourable senators that there is still a great deal of work to be done. Anyone who has worked in this area, no matter what the government, would know that.

I will repeat: Every year, the government invests in education for over 117,000 students on-reserve, from K to 12; and we also support approximately 22,000 post-secondary students. I will repeat that answer, but I am sure honourable senators can read my remarks in the Debates of the Senate: This is 117,000 students every year.

We are investing further in literacy. We have worked with industry on job skills. We had the conference last January and education was the focus of it. The government is working extremely hard. The minister is firmly committed. The government is firmly committed to working with the Aboriginal leaders to further improve upon what we have already done.

However, in fairness to Senator Jaffer, she did not try to leave the impression that this is a file that the government has turned its back on — far from it. She has obviously put her finger on a problem that has been with us for many, many decades.

Having said that, the government is firmly committed. This was the government that finally dealt with the residential school issue and formally apologized. This is the government that has held the Crown-First Nations Gathering, a leadership meeting.

This is the government that understands that there is a great deal of work to do in this area but that has also committed a great deal of effort and money into the whole issue of education of our young Aboriginals.

Senator Jaffer: I have heard the leader before and I heard her today say that we are funding 117,000 children.

Senator LeBreton: Per year.

Senator Jaffer: There is something that concerns me. I am not able to share with honourable senators what I saw in Winnipeg, because I would become too emotional regarding what I saw happening to our Canadian children in schools. Whether there are 117,000 students or whether there are more, the basic fact is that they do not get the same level of education that my grandson gets. As a Canadian parliamentarian, I feel that is wrong. I believe that everyone in this chamber believes that is wrong.

My supplementary question to the leader is this: As current levels of funding have not ensured the universal recognition of First Nations children’s right to education, what is our government’s new strategy to lead and empower its partners to guarantee universal access to quality education for our Canadian children?

Senator LeBreton: I can tell honourable senators what we have been doing. Also, as we work with this shared goal, no education legislation will be drafted going forward to make further improvements until we have heard from the First Nations. They are very much a part of this, and that is really all I can say to honourable senators.

We work very closely with the First Nations. As we move forward to improve the education of our young Aboriginal people, this will all be done. It is a shared experience and it will all be done only after we have consulted with First Nations on the matter.

Senator Jaffer: I know that the leader may not be able to answer this question today, and I respect that, but I would like to know what steps our government will take to meet the specific international human rights obligations, as well as its obligations under section 91 of the Constitution Act, 1867.

Senator LeBreton: The government is fully cognizant of its obligations. I would argue very firmly that the government lives up to its obligations and will continue to live up to its obligations to our First Nations citizens.

Again, we do work very closely with the leadership of the First Nations and the educators, not only in the area of education but also in the area of land claims. There are many areas we are working with First Nations on, such as truth and reconciliation and residential schools issues; there are a number of areas where we are working. We fully understand our obligations to our First Nations people.