by Alanna Adamko, contributor
Hundreds of supporters roared, clapped, cheered, and shook signs with slogans like “education equals opportunity,” and “education is a Treaty right,” during a rally in support of indigenous educational rights Wednesday morning, Sept. 22.
“Raise those signs again, they tell the story of our country,” said National Chief, Assembly of First Nations, Shawn A-in-chut Atleo at the atrium of the First Nation University of Canada (FNUniv).
Hundreds of students, elders, politicians, and concerned citizens came to support the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN) organized rally in Regina as part of a week-long, nation-wide campaign to raise support for the federal Post-Secondary Student Support Program (PSSSP) and to advocate for more operational funding for indigenous run educational institutions.
The PSSSP program, run by the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs has seen its funding drop since a two per cent cap was placed on the program in 1996. Originally able to provide postsecondary funding for 27,000 First Nation treaty status students each year that number dwindled to 22,000 First Nation students by 2006.
“There are at least 10,000 aboriginal students eligible to go to school and they are on the wait-list for funding and with the two per cent cap on tuition the problem is only compounded every year as more people apply for funding,” said Cassandra Opikokew, chairperson of the National Aboriginal Caucus of the Canadian Federation of Students and president of the Indigenous Student Association at the University of Regina.
She received funding from PSSSP in her undergraduate degree but said her band doesn’t have the funds to help her in her current Master’s program and the post-graduate degree she wants to pursue.
“[The two per cent cap] puts strain on the band council,” she said. “They have to pick, ‘OK, persons A, B, C, D, you get to go to university.’”
How PSSSP funding is distributed has become the centre of government scrutiny after the results of a departmental internal audit on the program was published last year. The audit found that a combined lack of program funding and lack of regulations on how bands use and distribute the funding has stinted the success of the PSSSP.
“The funding authorities currently in use, coupled with the limited tracking of how funds are spent, do not support the sound stewardship of Program funds,” the audit report concluded.
The department itself is under a government ordered strategic review for 2010 to identify programs within the department that can be cut or have their funding reduced.
FSIN Chief Guy Lonechild is upset that First Nation programming and funding is being reviewed without the consultation of First Nation leaders.
“If there is any type of changes in policy they need to talk to us about it and that is the message here today and that will be our message on Parliament Hill,” said Lonechild.
He is worried that First Nation educational programming will be cut in favour of general student financial assistance programs and policy changes will result in First Nation bands losing control over PSSSP funding.
“We are here to stand strong on Indian control on Indian education,” he said.
Atleo believes more funding, not funding cuts, is needed for a strong Canadian economy.
“There is an educational and employment gap between First Nation and Non-First Nation people in Canada with only seven per cent of First Nations attaining a post-secondary education compared to the 24 percent attainment rate for non-First Nation Canadians,” he said.
Citing a Canadian Centre for Living Standards study, Atleo said that if the gap is closed there will be an additional 65,000 workers in the economy, generating $179 billion in annual Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by 2026.
“That’s a sound investment with a promising return for everyone.”
Atleo said part of the long term government strategy to close the gap needs to involve more funding for First Nation run educational facilities.
“We need to start investing not only in these students but institutions across this country.”
Indigenous run institutions receive funding far below that of their provincial counterparts, said Atleo. An additional $300 million annually is needed for capital and operational costs to put First Nation run schools on par with the rest of the country.
The FNUniv has felt the funding crunch the most with $12 million in provincial and federal funding pulled earlier in the year amid allegations of financial and administrative mismanagement. The majority of the funding has been restored; however, the federal government has only committed $4 million to keep FNUniv operations going from September 1 to March 31. The funding is also not given directly to the university but is passed down through the Indian Studies Support Program with requirements for FNUniv to meet milestones set out for administrative and financial changes.
Lonechild said that changes have been made and are continuing to be made at the university to ensure accountability. He says the current funding scheme is unfair with the university “trying to stitch together programs and services and proposals,” and a long-term federal commitment is needed.
“We need to ensure long-term sustainable funding is put into place when we have a strong board of governors put into place, which is happening in a few weeks’ time. That will be a good news story for everybody in the country when the federal government puts long-term funding back into the First Nations University.”
[Correction: In the print issue, this article is corrected to "Alanna Adamanko." The Carillon regrets this error.]
More photos from the rally: