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The Implications of Funding Deficiencies of On-Reserve Schools in Canada

Tansi Nîtôtemtik,

Last week on the blog, we talked about the importance of education in our province and how the inclusion of Indigenous content can result in positive outcomes. This week, we are looking specifically at the current state of education for Indigenous children in our country and how funding gaps and differential treatment lead to Indigenous children having lower educational outcomes.

Like other matters such as health and child welfare, First Nations children are caught in a jurisdictional tug-of-war when it comes to their education. While the provinces have the jurisdiction to control the education system, the federal government has the power, or responsibility, to take care of matters concerning Indigenous people and First Nations reserves.[1] This ultimately leads to differential funding approaches for federally run on-reserve schools as compared to provincially funded off-reserve schools.

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The educational funding that First Nations schools received has been estimated to be 30% lower than provincial averages.[2] A deficiency in funding not only means that fewer resources and supports are available to students, but it can also lead to cutting corners in the area of culture and language programs meant to revitalize the culture of First Nations. If a school is doing its best to keep the lights on, how are they expected to participate in the creation of specialized language programs?

A survey was conducted in 2017 looking at the state of on-reserve education in Canada.[3] Nationally, the participants' concerns were focused on the funding issues and how the lack of sufficient funding not only resulted in a deficiency in programs for students with disabilities and in health and wellness, but also that the insufficient funding led to a reduced ability to hire and retain competent teachers.[4] The survey also found that there was an even greater need for counselors and other support staff in some on-reserve schools due to trauma experienced by some of their children, but the schools are simply not equipped to provide this support.[5]

In 2019, the federal government introduced a new funding program for on-reserve schools, but critics say this did little to solve the problem.[6] The lack of First Nations control was a major concern.[7] Another major critique was that the government uses a comparability model and has been trying to “transplant” systems from the provincial framework into the First Nations context. This simply does not work.[8] Leslee White-Eye, a First Nations education expert, has stated, “Provincial mainstream education systems and their development were never impeded by genocidal, assimilationist regimes meant to erase Canadian identity, remove children from their families over generations, or deploy religious oversight in ways that went far beyond religious studies’ instruction.”[9]

This quote really drives home the point that it is not only equity that is longed for, but rather control. The federal government needs to ensure that the funding amounts are at least comparable to the amounts that the provinces are receiving, and that control is given to these nations to decide how their schools are run. An education system for First Nations children built by members of their community will ensure that the content is culturally appropriate and will meet the needs of the children. But to do this, the first step is to ensure that the schools are sufficiently funded.

Until next time,

Team Reconcili-ACTION YEG

[1] Constitution Act, 1867 (UK), 30 & 31 Vict, c 3, s 91(24), reprinted in RSC 1985, Appendix II, No. 5. [2] “#ENDTHEGAP”, online: EndtheGap For Funding First Nations Schools <>. [3] “Let’s talk on-reserve education: Survey report” (last modified 18 December 2017), online: Government of Canada <>. [4] Ibid. [5] Ibid. [6] Leslee White-Eye, “Education and Crown Paternalism: Reviewing the New On-reserve Education Funding Model” (29 April 2019), online: Yellowhead Institute <>. [7] Ibid. [8] Ibid. [9] Ibid.

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