Martin Holzbauer, independent, Nicole Halbauer, BC NDP, and Ellis Ross, BC Liberal Party, are the candidates for the Skeena riding in the upcoming provincial election. (Terrace Standard/BC NDP)

Martin Holzbauer, independent, Nicole Halbauer, BC NDP, and Ellis Ross, BC Liberal Party, are the candidates for the Skeena riding in the upcoming provincial election. (Terrace Standard/BC NDP)

Skeena candidates talk northwest education

Online learning access and early childhood education were common themes

Education is an important part of Canadian society and is crucial for the growth of the province, nation and individuals in their own lives. Basic facts, job skills and cultural knowledge are all elements of education.

But the results of the provincial education system are not uniform. According to the Fraser Institute’s 2020 Report Card on British Columbia Secondary Schools, students in the Skeena riding generally fare worse than students in the south of the province based on average exam marks, percentage of exams failed and graduation rates.

Mount Elizabeth Secondary School in Kitimat was the fifth lowest ranked secondary school in the province, with a score of 1.7 out of 10 and the the average exam mark was 65.8 per cent. Caledonia Secondary School in Terrace scored a 5.7 out of 10 according to the institute and is ranked 145 out of 252 schools in B.C. Lower scores on standardized testing can put students at a competitive disadvantage when applying for post-secondary institutions.

A comparative lack of post-secondary options in the region means that oftentimes students have to leave to continue their education, and many do not return to contribute and innovate in the local economy. That can result in a phenomenon known as ‘brain drain,’ where more educated people or skilled workers emigrate to other areas.

The importance of early childhood education and childcare has gained visibility in recent months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as a lack of options forced some parents to leave a job to care for children. The federal Liberals promised this September to make a “significant, long-term, sustained investment to create a Canada-wide early learning and childcare system” as a way to help women enter or return to the workforce and stimulate the economy.

In B.C., $10-a-day childcare was part of the NDP’s 2017 platform but John Horgan said that the BC Green Party’s lack of support stifled efforts to implement its plan. The NDP have promised to expand the number of $10-a-day spaces if re-elected. In a statement, the provincial Liberals called $10-a-day childcare “just an empty ‘slogan’.”

Early childhood education

BC Liberal candidate Ellis Ross said he considers early childhood education to be crucial for the Skeena area — a lesson he learned in his 14 years experience as councillor and chief councillor for the Haisla Nation.

“It’s one of the biggest priorities in every First Nations community, all around B.C., if not Canada,” he said. “I take that with me into the provincial level.”

Independent candidate Martin Holzbauer said that while he believes early childhood care is important, he also believes that, when possible, parents should keep their children home with them and teach them themselves.

“In some instances, it would be actually better for society and they have had…pilot projects where they have paid people to stay home and be with their kids, and it was actually a lesser cost to society than paying for childcare because childcare can be rather expensive,” Holzbauer said, adding that “affordable childcare, however, becomes much more important [with working parents].”

BC NDP candidate Nicole Halbauer is very passionate about childcare and early childhood education, including the $10 per day childcare that is part of the BC NDP platform.

“That’s to make it affordable for families,” Halbauer said. “It’s an expansion of what’s already in the budget.”

“I was a single mother for a long time and one of the biggest barriers for me to go to work was childcare,” she added. “Early childhood education, all the literature for the last 30 years has shown that that makes a difference in the health outcomes of children in their adult life. They’re more educated, they do better in school, they’re able to maintain a healthy lifestyle.”

Primary/secondary

Ross said the issue of lower standardized testing scores in the Northwest is due in part to flaws with standardized education. He and other Haisla leaders spent significant time and energy addressing this problem.

“We’ve wrestled with this,” he said. “One of the things that we found out, especially with First Nations kids, is that First Nations [people] actually learn in a different manner. Most of our teaching came from watching and doing.”

A desire for flexible teaching methods informed Ross and the Haisla Nation council’s decision to set up a small, private post-secondary school — the Kitimat Valley Institute.

“We could actually say ‘Okay, we’re going to prepare the region, aboriginal and non-aboriginal alike, we’re going to prepare the region for the LNG jobs, the smelter jobs, and any of the other jobs that might be coming up in the Northwest,’” he said.

The school was initially funded by the Haisla Nation council, and Rio Tinto, though over the years it has received provincial grants for specific programs. One of the biggest lessons learned while establishing the school, Ross said, was that many British Columbians are reluctant to provide public funding to private schools. Ross doesn’t agree.

“It doesn’t seem to matter to me, as long as the standards are being met, and as long as the kids are being educated. Education is key to all walks of life,” he said.

Halbauer believes the best way to help level the playing field for northern students to be more competitive after high school is to provide more support for the public school system and classrooms, from preschool all the way to Grade 12.

“I really value education. I always told my children that that was the number one thing they can do to reduce poverty, is to make sure that they’re educated,” Halbauer said. “And I strongly believe that the more people we have accessing post-secondary, K-to-12, Headstart programs, preschool programs, then the better off we’ll all be.”

Holzbauer said he’s not very familiar with this subject, and doesn’t know what could be improved, especially for Indigenous students.

“If I don’t know, I”m totally willing to say ‘I don’t know’ instead of trying to give a non-answer,” Holzbauer said. “What the government could do though is, the people who are responsible for that part, to give them enough, not just funding but, you know, tools to be able to deal with that in whichever way, you know, additional teachers, additional money, whatever is necessary to be able to assist that particular group.”

Post-secondary

When asked what can be done about the issue of young people or highly-educated people leaving the Northwest, Halbauer said the focus should be on accessible and affordable housing for students, so they have somewhere to stay on-campus for their learning.

“New student housing on all [Coast Mountain College] campuses is really key to making sure there’s housing for our young people to stay here when they enter post-secondary, offering a variety of courses and programs that meet their needs and their interests, and making sure that they can access the education system from where they’re at,” she said.

She added that internet access and mobile learning are also big components of it because, she added, “if they’re not able to come to a campus in one of our larger communities, how are we supporting that student to get their education?”

Holzbauer feels things have changed around this topic, as COVID has pushed more students towards online learning and moving home. He said he believes internet access is a key factor in keeping more people in the Northwest, as many people leave because they cannot access school because of a lack of an internet connection.

“There is theoretical learning and there is practical learning. And if you combine the two in the correct amount, then you get almost a perfect — how should I put it — perfect results,” Holzbauer said. “But to find the balance between them and now, right now, with COVID everything, so much more gets pushed online, which leaves some people out because they don’t have access to internet, for example, especially in remote communities. That’s why the governments, both provincially and federally, are trying to remedy that problem and have more online accessibility in all communities.”

Ross believes building and maintaining a strong economy in the region is essential.

“Build something that they can stay for, or come back for, which is happening in Kitimat,” he said. “If there’s no jobs, if there’s no economy, your best people leave.”

He said it’s also crucial to maintain community services.

“Once your economy crashes, then all the services start to leave,” Ross said. “If you don’t have those, it’s really hard to attract professionals, because in today’s day and age, you’re not just interviewing whether or not that professional wants to come work for you, you’re interviewing whether or not he wants to bring his family to come live in your community.”

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