Speech on Shannen's Dream - Education for First Nation Children

Mr. Speaker, I will be splitting my time.

I would like to acknowledge those colleagues who have worked so hard on this issue. We have heard from many of them in the House already.

I rise to speak in support of today's opposition motion. The motion calls on the government to adopt Shannen's Dream by the following:

(a) declaring that all first nation children have an equal right to high-quality, culturally-relevant education;

(b) committing to provide the necessary financial and policy supports for first nations education systems;

(c) providing funding that will put reserve schools on par with non-reserve provincial schools;

(d) developing transparent methodologies for school construction, operation, maintenance and replacement;

(e) working collaboratively with first nation leaders to establish equitable norms and formulas for determining class sizes and for the funding of educational resources, staff salaries, special education services and indigenous language instruction; and

(f) implementing polices to make the first nation education system, at a minimum, of equal quality to provincial school systems.

Shannen Koostachin of the Attawapiskat First Nation had a dream: to provide first nations children and youth with culturally-based education in safe, comfortable schools, or “comfy” schools as she called them. In her short lifetime, Shannen became the voice for first nations reserve children who had been deprived of their right to an education.

For 10 years, the community of Attawapiskat fought for a school to be built on its reserve. It refused to accept that the best the federal government could do was portables set up on grounds that were so toxic and so contaminated that children were actually passing out from the benzene fumes.

For a time, it seemed that the community's efforts would pay off and that a school would finally be built for the children of Attawapiskat. However, in 2007, the federal government reneged on its commitment, choosing instead to continue the chronic mismanagement and underfunding of the education of first nations children.

The lack of adequate first nations education is inextricably linked to the issue of widespread and persistent poverty. In Canada, being aboriginal often means being poor. One in four first nations children grows up in poverty, that is 25%.

Why is this the case? There are a number of factors that contribute to these unacceptably high rates of poverty. The unemployment rate of aboriginals is almost 10 percentage points above that of the non-aboriginal population. Aboriginal youth are less likely to complete secondary education, as my colleague from Manicouagan pointed out earlier today in his speech. Living and health conditions are also well below Canadian averages.

It has been documented that aboriginal people have shorter life expectancies, in part due to higher risks of diseases, such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

We know that we can break the cycle of poverty through education.

We must also understand the importance of culturally-based education. During the era of residential schools, aboriginal children were forced to assimilate into European-Canadian society. Their cultural traditions and languages were taken away from them in what some would describe as a cultural genocide.

Today, educators of first nations children face the task of recovering the cultural heritage of first nations so that the children can once again take pride in their heritage.

In my riding, there are two first nation communities, the Kwikwetlem First Nation and the Qayqayt First Nation.

The Kwikwetlem First Nation takes its name from the salmon that historically travelled up the Coquitlam River. Kwikwetlen literally means red fish up the river. Its culture is similar to other Stó:lo and northwest coast Salish groups. Its traditions are closely tied to watersheds and the life cycle of the salmon. After contact with the Europeans, its spiritual, linguistic and cultural traditions were challenged. It lost its right to sell and trade salmon, its children were placed in residential schools and a system of regulations and protocols handed down by Ottawa were imposed on its lands. The process of regaining these rights and traditions is a lengthy and complex one.

I will now talk about the Qayqayt First Nation, which is historically located in New Westminster. At the end of the 19th century, there were some 400 members of that nation. However, by 1913, only one orphan band member remained. The federal government seized most of the band's reserve lands and the orphan child, Marie Lee Bandura, was sent to a residential school where she would be punished for speaking her native language. The burden of shame stayed with her throughout her lifetime. Her daughter, Chief Rhonda Larrabee, eventually uncovered her family's heritage and, after a lengthy process, she was able to reclaim her status as a member of the Qayqayt First Nation.

The stories of the Kwikwetlem and the Qayqayt First Nations demonstrate that today, more than ever, the federal government must work in partnership with first nations across Canada to ensure that first nations children have access to culturally relevant education so that students can re-engage with and take pride in their traditions, languages and cultures.

We know what the challenges are and we know what the solutions are. These solutions have been reiterated time and time again over the past two decades. Over the course of former auditor general Sheila Fraser's 10-year mandate, her office produced 31 audit reports on aboriginal issues. In these reports, Ms. Fraser highlighted the gaps between first nations and non-first nations education, stating that, “conditions are getting worse instead of getting better”.

She also noted that between 1991 and 1999 at least 22 studies recommended the following measures to improve the quality of first nations education: address retention of aboriginal languages; enhance curriculum to meet first nations needs; increase funding for special education, counselling and library services; address inadequacies in special services, technologies and guidance clinics; and improve teacher training.

In her final report in 2011, Ms. Fraser criticized the government for failing to take action on her previous reports, noting that, despite over 30 reports in the past decade, little action had been taken by successive governments to address the inequality.

This February, the national panel on first nations elementary and secondary education released its final report following through on its mandate to consult with first nations communities to develop recommendations on how to improve education for first nations children. The report called for the co-creation of a first nations education act, which would outline responsibilities for each partner in the system and recognize and protect the first nations child's right to their culture and identity, a quality education, funding for the system and first nation control of first nation education.

Another of the report's recommendations called for statutory funding that is needs based, predictable, sustainable and specifically designated for education.

Report after report has called on the federal government to take action to protect the rights of the first nation child. How many more dozens of reports are required before the government will take substantive action?

I believe that the national attention paid to the Attawapiskat this past winter has served as a wake-up call to the government. I certainly would like to acknowledge my hon. colleague, the member for Timmins--James Bay, for his tireless work and for drawing attention to this important issue.

The first nations summit held in Ottawa just this past January was a step in the right direction. Now it is time for the government to keep its word and take immediate concrete action. This begins by rebuilding trust between first nations and the government and working in partnership to break through the status quo.

I hope that today all members of the House will come together in agreement that it is time for change.

I will finish by reading into Hansard the words of Shannen Koostachin:

I would like to talk to you what it is like to be a child who grows up never seeing a real school. I want to tell you what it is like to never have the chance to feel excited about being educated. That's why some of our students begin to give up in grade 4 and grade 5. They just stop going to school. Imagine that. Imagine a child who feels they have no future even at that young age. We want our younger brothers and sisters to go to school thinking that school is a time for hopes and dreams of the future. Every kid deserves this.

That was Shannen's Dream and we need to make that a reality.