Monday, May 30, I had lunch with Sheila Fraser, Canada’s out-going auditor general. Fraser, after holding the federal government accountable for ten years, was delivering a final report to a room full of executive types in Ottawa. I was sitting at my kitchen table enjoying chili and a freshly baked bread stick, tuned in to CPAC.
I’ve always had a warm spot in my heart for Sheila Fraser. She made me love her for her simple vocabulary, clear expression of weighty ideas, and friendly demeanour reassuring me that even those of us with modest educations and life experience have the right to understand how our government has spent our money, when it has done so wisely, and where it has fallen short.
The section of her farewell talk that gripped me dealt with the living conditions of First Nations on reserves.
Fraser conducted 31 audits dealing with aboriginal issues, looking at everything from education to water quality to child and family services. I recall a TV documentary of a family of 13 living in a cramped apartment, trading tuberculosis. Yet last year, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada reported there was little or no progress in the well-being of First Nations communities.
This gap is “unacceptable” to Fraser. And to me. She said, “I actually think it’s quite tragic when you see that there is a population in this country that does not have the sort of basic services that Canadians take for granted.”
“Too many First Nations people still lack clean drinking water,” she says. “More than half of the drinking water systems on reserves still pose a health threat.”
Only 41 percent of students on reserves graduate from high school, compared with 77 percent of students in the rest of the country. There is no legislation that clearly sets out responsibilities for educating children on reserves.
Nor is there assured funding. There are no statutory funding requirements or service standards. Funding is often not timely because it is provided through short-term contribution agreements which are subject to the availability of funding. We all know how well that works.
Does this mean, for instance, only if the federal government has money left over after building an artificial lake for a G8 conference it might then dole out an extra buck or two for native children’s education?
Reserve schools lack school boards or equivalent organizations monitoring and supporting First Nations schools. Likely this hampers parents’ ability to lobby for increased funding to buy up-to-date equipment , hire extra teachers, or build new schools.
The Nisga’a in the Nass have perhaps the only independent reserve-run school in Canada with their own school board.
Bella Bella has a 20-student school with native literature and culture woven into the curriculum to make it more relevant to students. This year 26 students will graduate from their high school, marking a turning point after three decades.
Developing First Nations institutions and capacity will be critical to success, Fraser says. “Real improvement will depend on the full participation of both First Nations and the federal government. They will have to work together to address many obstacles, and it will not be easy.”
Right there I foresee a gigantic kink. Even if the federal government establishes reliable education funding, will natives step up and do their part?
Some will. Others may go on blaming the government or their grandparents’ abuse in residential schools for their downtrodden existence. Without that commitment to improve, Fraser believes that living conditions on reserves will lag behind the rest of Canada for generations to come.