The federal government, which regularly gets attacked for falling short on its mandated support for aboriginal communities, has now been told it is deeply under-funding the maintenance of First Nations schools.
The Parliamentary Budget Officer's office (PBO) has issued a report that concludes Ottawa is spending one-third less than is needed just to keep schools in B.C. First Nations communities from crumbling, the Globe and Mail reports.
The report, released Thursday, estimates aboriginal schools in the province will need $39 million in the fiscal year 2013-14 via federal obligations under the Indian Act. They are currently receiving just $26 million for this year.
And population growth will boost the funding requirement to $47 million by 2028-29 just to maintain schools in their current condition, the report says.
The report suggests school upkeep has fallen victim to other funding priorities within the Department of Aboriginal Affairs that have "more immediate health and safety impacts," the Globe reported.
The PBO report was requested by B.C. New Democrat MP Jean Crowder as a followup to a 2009 report by the office covering First Nations reserve schools across Canada. It concluded 500 were in poor condition and underfunded to the tune of $200 million a year. In response, the government spent about $200 million to renovate aboriginal schools, the Globe noted.
A spokeswoman for Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt said more than 260 schools, including 26 in British Columbia, have been built or upgraded since 2006.
“Our government is also consulting on a First Nations Education Act that would put in place standards and structures to improve education for First Nations students, and would put in place the mechanisms required to provide stable and predictable funding for First Nations schools,” Andrea Richer told the Globe via email.
Crowder, the NDP's aboriginal affairs critic, said in a statement the report confirms the existence of a funding gap and that the Conservative government is failing B.C. First Nations children.
“It’s shameful, because we are talking about the next generation of kids here and the education they need to succeed,” she said.
“We are talking about the basic tool for education – a safe, modern school. The PBO said that too often the condition of the schools is only fair and there is no long-term capital planning to replace them as needed based on population and safety.”
There was no immediate reaction from B.C. or national First Nations leaders. In the past, the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) has estimated it would cost $500 million to bring B.C. aboriginal schools up to provincial standards, the Globe said.
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The AFN has been in talks with the federal and B.C. governments to shift more control of aboriginal education to First Nations themselves. The Tripartite Education Framework Agreement also aims to set up a new funding model to put them on the same footing as non-native schools in B.C., though it appears not to cover bricks and mortar.
The PBO report estimated that operating First Nations school at the same capacity levels as non-native B.C. schools would reduce the funding requirement to $30 million (from $47 million) in 15 years, the Globe said.
B.C. First Nations schools are deeply under-utilized compared with other schools in the province, using on average 57 per cent of their capacity, compared with 87 per cent for non-native schools. One school was operating at just seven per cent, the PBO report found.