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Renata Meconse once dreamed of enrolling in Ryerson University’s journalism program. But the mother of three rapidly woke up.
“The cost of living is higher there. It’s very hard for a First Nations person to move to one of the big cities for university,” she says.
Meconse, 35, had to take what was available to her. She was lucky enough to get funding, and enrolled in the creative communications program at the University of Winnipeg. During her third year, she got offered a job. It was a good opportunity and one that would also allow her to bring some extra cash to her household. But it took away the possibility of getting future funding for her studies.
To a great portion of aboriginal youth, going to university in a place like Toronto is a challenge not many of them can face successfully.
The Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development recently released a proposal for a First Nations Education Act (FNEA). But aboriginal youth and education specialists believe that while they’re crafting acts on education, the government should address the lack of funding for post-secondary education.
The latest proposal for a FNEA was released on Oct. 22. It was met with widespread opposition by aboriginal communities. Government funding for primary and secondary education, which has been frozen since 1996, continues to decline with the rising inflation and subsequent rise in the cost of living.
This lack of funding early on in a student’s career distresses leaders in the aboriginal community as students struggle to keep up with the rest of Canada later in life.
Since the mid-19th century, many aboriginal nations signed treaties with the Crown, where in exchange for land and resources, they would get education, health care and infrastructure.
When many of the treaties were signed, aboriginal chiefs thought that the only way to participate in the new economic order would be for First Nations to obtain a modern education.
Because there are more students than funding, the only chance people like Meconse have of going to university is by applying to their local reserve for sponsorship.
As many reserves across Canada struggle to provide education to a growing number of students, they have to make hard choices.
“If we got 10 students who want to get post-secondary education and we only have funding for five, you know, which five do you say can get educated and which five you cut out? That is just wrong,” says Patrick Madahbee, Grand Council Chief of the Union of Ontario Indians.
Money is usually given to students who choose cheaper college programs, such as a seven-month certificate. It gets even harder if they want to apply to a university and relocate to a place like Toronto, at least in Meconse’s experience.
“I’m very happy that I took the job, but I missed out on completing my degree when I had the chance. So now it’s even harder for me to finish,” she says.
When she tried to return to school after three years of working in communications, she was told the priority were first-year students and she was put on a year-long waiting list.
Meconse, who now works as an engagement liaison with Cancer Care Manitoba, says many of her First Nations friends have had similar experiences.
“Sometimes they have social issues that limit them, or they can’t afford to be students because they have to feed their families.”
The amount of exploitable resources a reserve has can determine how many of its youth can attend a post-secondary institution.
“If it’s a community that has quite a bit of resources … they can pinpoint dollars for other community-driven needs like education,” says Laurie Hermiston, executive assistant at the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto.
While some communities are able to fully fund their members into even graduate studies programs, others struggle to afford any program at all.
“More remote and more north, it’s harder to get access to education, health care and resources,” says Hermiston. “That’s where we get our Third World conditions.”
Though the federal government wants First Nations to learn how to extract their own reserve’s resources, a lack of funding prevents them from reaching higher education.
“When people are oppressing people there are two things they do — keep them uneducated and in poverty,” says Madahbee. “And guess what? This is what’s going on in Canada.”
When the first proposal for the act was being drafted in 2011, aboriginal leaders countrywide boycotted talks for a proposal in which they claim they had no say.
“The problem with the FNEA is that there is no consultation in any meaningful way with First Nations about what goes into this thing, the design of it,” says Madahbee.
The October 2013 proposal, which was published as a press release, says it gives aboriginal communities the chance to provide input on how to govern their own education systems and parameters.
“That’s an outright lie,” says Madahbee. “Writing a letter or reporting something out on a media release is not consultation. They haven’t talked to every First Nation community across the country. ”
The communities are concerned about losing the ability to govern their own institutions.
“There have been more and more moves for First Nations to take over their services and education,” says Madahbee.
“It is a logical step, obviously. They got many different agencies outside of the communities that have delivered services in the past, and we are saying we should be delivering these services.”
But many aboriginal communities see the proposed FNEA as a violation of the treaties they signed.
Amanda Thompson, aboriginal academic support adviser at Ryerson, believes that part of the difficulty is that the funding programs change with every new government.
“Much of the money comes from the federal government, so as those programs change, the landscape changes as well,” she says. “There isn’t a single answer. Nor do I think there should be.”
As part of the Economic Action Plan 2013, the federal government proposed expanding the Indspire campaign. This program would add $10 million over two years in funding post-secondary education for First Nations and Inuit youth.
The government says this will add to the $300 million it already provides to these groups.
Indspire currently provides 2,200 scholarships annually to aboriginal students.
Aboriginal Affairs Minister, Bernard Valcourt, has said he wants education system reform before the government will provide any additional funding.
Jeremy Kinsman, a former Canadian foreign ambassador, thinks these rifts in domestic policy are just as important as Canada’s foreign policy discussions. He says part of the problem is public ignorance on aboriginal issues. “I felt humiliated that I grew up downtown Montreal, and I was (on the advisory board for the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg) with four native Canadian women, lawyers and human rights people. (There were) stories they told that I had no idea of.
“I felt terrible. But I didn’t know. And that’s always the answer — I didn’t know,” says Kinsman.
What Meconse knows is that it will be challenging for her to advance in her career in professional communications.
“For jobs that I want to apply for that require a degree, I’m limited.” she says. “I have very good work experience, but that piece of paper, it limits me still.”
Meconse still plans to finish her studies eventually. She only has a year’s worth of credits keeping her from getting a post-secondary degree.
But she’s lost faith in her local reserve’s funding channel. When the wait list was wiped clean, Meconse lost her spot, and had to start the application process all over again.
“I didn’t bother,” she says. “Because when you apply for a scholarship, it’s usually for people who have no income, but for me I have to work and support my family. And that’s where my money is going.”
This story was first published in The Ryersonian, a weekly newspaper produced by the Ryerson School of Journalism, on November 13, 2013.