For the next three years, Ottawa has pledged $275 million to First Nation education across Canada.
But none of that money is expected to come to the Yukon.
It is earmarked for work “on-reserve.” But because of self-government, the Yukon does not have “reserves.”
This isn’t the first time this has happened and education isn’t the only issue it affects.
The Council of Yukon First Nations has been trying to get those two little words taken out of health care funding language for years.
The budget’s aboriginal education money comes in response to recommendations from a national panel that toured the country late last year.
Kluane Adamek, the territory’s youth representative for the national Assembly of First Nations, showed the panel around when it visited the Yukon last November.
After giving panel members a tour of Whitehorse’s Elijah Smith Elementary School, Adamek said she told them that Yukon First Nations should not be left out because of their agreements.
If anything, they should be included because of them, she said.
The panel, made up of federal First Nation and non-First Nation bureaucrats, also sat down with the territorial government and Yukon First Nation leaders.
The members went back to Ottawa knowing that “leaving the Yukon out would not be acceptable,” said Adamek.
But the panel was intended to combat issues on-reserve, she said. And the budget did respond to its recommendations.
For example, its suggestion to establish a First Nations Education Act was included.
But this act may not be something all First Nations across Canada want, said Adamek.
Not all nations agreed to participate in the panel, she said. Besides, federally-imposed blanket legislation could undermine years of work that First Nations with agreements, like those in the Yukon, have been doing on education in their own communities.
“Creating this act is one thing, but the Assembly of First Nations asked for $500 million,” said Adamek.
That money would not only make sure the act reflected and addressed particular needs, it would also ensure the legislation was implemented effectively and respectfully.
“There can never be a one-size-fits-all model. First Nations really need to be involved in making that act.”
The federal budget earmarked $100 million to help offer early literacy programming and better support between First Nation schools and students with “provincial school systems.”
The other $175 million is “to build and renovate schools on reserve,” it said.
“The feds have to address the situation on-reserve,” Adamek said. “But what about (First Nations) students who go to school off-reserve?
“And with that ‘on-reserve’ we’re left out,” she added, meaning Yukon First Nations.
“I’d like to see what our premier’s and Member of Parliament’s perspective is on this.”
Yukon MP Ryan Leef said he sympathetic to Yukon First Nations’ concerns but the situation on reserves really is special, he said.
“Yukon First Nations have a point,” he said. “Why not just say ‘First Nations across Canada?’ But I think the First Nations on reserves in Canada face some unique and different challenges that do require some differentiation. I am not saying there isn’t work that needs to be done … (but) a lot of south and western First Nations look at the Yukon and say, ‘Wow. You’re very, very progressive.’ They are amazed.
“While we can celebrate that and toot our horns on land claim agreements and self-government agreements, and some of the very progressive steps that Yukon First Nations are taking, at the same time we need to recognize that there is a tremendous amount of work that needs to be done.
And there’s a tremendous amount of investment that needs to be taken on for Yukon First Nations, particularly in that field of education and economic and job opportunities.”
But Leef couldn’t say where that investment would come from.
It’s a lot to ask small, under-funded and under-employed First Nation governments to re-invent the wheel when it comes to building schools and curriculum, Adamek added.
The national panel that toured Canada last year also asked for regional First Nation education commissions. That recommendation was not addressed at all in the budget.
Adamek said even the money that has been offered may not be enough.
“There are 634 First Nations across Canada,” she said. “Is $175 million really going to be able to do that much? And is that money going directly to the First Nations or will it go to the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and get 20 per cent taken off for administration costs?”
Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at firstname.lastname@example.org