BY ELISE STOLTE, JUNE 11, 2012
Former prime minister Paul Martin receives an honorary doctor of laws from Chancellor Linda Hughes during a convocation ceremony at the University of Alberta on June 11, 2012. Photograph by: Candace Elliott , edmontonjournal.com
EDMONTON - Most First Nations reserves now have the competent, educated administrators in place who could make major improvements to aboriginal schools, former prime minister Paul Martin told the Journal editorial board Monday.
"They are hamstrung by the lack of funding."
Martin was reacting to a recent joint federal/First Nations/provincial report that Ottawa would need to invest $15 million more annually in First Nations schools in Alberta just to bring funding up to par with provincial equivalents. Their annual budget would need to increase by $45 million if First Nations children started attending school at the same rates as mainstream Alberta kids.
Many people believe poor band management of the schools is to blame, and that's part of the problem, Martin said. "But on a majority of the reserves that I know of, the people are in place who can really make this work. One of the nice things that has happened over the last decade is that there are now a number of aboriginal educators who are first rate.
"They are really hamstrung. The obstacle is that those who want to work on this lack the funding."
While in office, Martin oversaw 18 months of negotiations and signed the $5.1-billion Kelowna accord, which would have funded improvements in education, health and employment. His minority government lost power two months after it was signed, and the deal was cancelled by the Conservatives.
Since stepping down as Liberal leader in 2006, Martin founded a charity to test initiatives in aboriginal education, including a high school business course aimed at reducing dropout rates.
The class, based on a New York project that cut dropout rates in half, is now being offered in 10 schools across Canada, and will be rolled out in two Alberta schools with high aboriginal populations this September.
Martin funded the pilot project on his own; these next schools are being funded by the oil and gas industry, which will also supply mentors.
The companies are interested in how aboriginal youth could help solve chronic labour shortages, said Lloyd Visser, vice-president of sustainable development for ConocoPhilips, reached later for comment. "Our aboriginal youth in Canada are a striking demographic in terms of how many they are and the huge potential they represent."
The business course starts in Fort McMurray's Father Patrick Mercredi High School and Wabasca-Desmarais' Mistassiniy School this September. Edmonton's Jasper Place High School and Fort McMurray's Composite High School start in September 2013.
Martin said Ottawa has gotten away with underfunding First Nations schools because the Canadian public has a sense of futility when it comes to First Nations issues.
"That's why proceed on a pilot project basis. What you have to do to offset that sense of futility is to show the successes," he said. "If you can show that you can really make a difference, I think you can get Canadians onside."
Poor education for First Nations students "is without a doubt the largest social issue across the country, and I think it's one of the major economic issues," he said. "It's just wrong it's so far beneath the radar screen."