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The Canadian Press

Report finds native students falling behind

Canadian Press, Toronto Star and various other Canadian newspapers, by SUE BAILEY, Nov. 23, 2004

OTTAWA — It will take aboriginal high school students 28 years to match non-native graduation rates and they're losing ground, says the auditor general.

Indian Affairs is dragging its heels on a troubling range of old problems, Sheila Fraser said in a report Tuesday.

These include jurisdictional squabbles, low teacher salaries and a lack of professional training.

More over, Ottawa can't say whether more than $1 billion spent each year on native education is too much or too little to meet required standards.

Fraser also blasts Indian Affairs for poorly tracking another $273 million spent on college and university funding.

"As a result, the department does not know whether program funds are sufficient to support all eligible students, and it has no assurance that only (those) taking eligible courses are receiving funding," Fraser says.

She uses the most recent census data to estimate that the chasm between native and non-native high schoolers has slightly widened to 28 from 27 years.

Just over 40 per cent of reserve residents had a high school diploma compared to almost 70 per cent of the general population, says the 2001 census.

"I am concerned by the limited progress in closing the education gap between people living on reserves and other Canadians," Fraser said. "Despite a commitment made in 2000, the department has still not clarified its role and responsibilities in improving the educational achievements of First Nations."

This is a vital first step as a young aboriginal population grows at about twice the Canadian birth rate, Fraser says. Indian Affairs must come up with reliable estimates on the cost of educating students on reserves and off, she added.

The one bright light she noted in an otherwise dim performance was improved programs for special education.

Indian Affairs accepted the criticism and said it's working with First Nations as they demand increasing control over schooling.

Native bands manage all but seven of 503 schools on reserves.

A big problem is conflicting attitudes in Ottawa over who's responsible for the system's failing grade, Fraser said. Native leaders say they need Read More ..deral cash to offer better education. But some bureaucrats say the problem is no longer theirs, Fraser told a news conference.

The $1 billion spent each year on education eats up 20 per cent of the Indian Affairs budget and is the department's largest program.

In 2002-03, the money funded about 120,000 students of which some 60 per cent went to school on reserves.

First Nations get education funding from Ottawa but must follow provincial standards.

Indian Affairs says it's crafting a new reporting scheme to clarify its duties, goals and to better track tax dollars.

Jurisdictional disputes are still causing confusion as federal and provincial officials battle over which government is responsible for students who leave reserves. For example, it's still unclear who should pay when native parents move away to attend college or university and take their children with them, Fraser says.

The Assembly of First Nations, representing more than 600 bands across Canada, says education is a treaty right that covers all levels up to university.