Since its release on Monday, Free to Learn has received considerable attention in the print and online media. For example, both the Globe and Mail and Winnipeg Free Press ran editorials entreating the federal government to take our proposal seriously. Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, for its part, said it "welcomes" the report. However, as with any policy proposal, there have been detractors. While we certainly welcome debate and discussion on this critically important issue, it is important to clear up any misconceptions that such criticisms may have given rise to.

The most apparent misreading of our report comes in a statement from Cindy Fisher, the President of the Ontario Native Education Counselling Association. Rather than addressing the facts of the proposal, Fisher first sought to impugn the motive of the authors and the Macdonald-Laurier Institute itself, calling it a "right wing conservative think tank." This, of course, is untrue: the MLI is an independent, non-partisan public policy institute with an interest in good public policy, not ideology. This kind of language is in any case usually a sign of a weak argument, since it aims to attack the person making the argument rather than refuting the argument itself. We prefer to avoid such name-calling.

As for the report, Fisher claims it "lacks credibility because it is not based on sound research and it does not have concise data to support it." Yet our research on the PSSSP directly cited the INAC Internal Audit of the Post-Secondary Student Support Program (PSSSP), which reported surplus funds being used for "administration costs, capital expenditures, child care costs, staff salaries and benefits, staff training/meetings, staff or council travel expenses, office expenses and utility costs," all of which "could be denying other eligible students from intended program support" (Internal Audit, 17-18). Regional variation was directly documented, with Ontario bands receiving $1,609 per individual in the 18-34 age cohort, compared to $941 in Atlantic Canada.

Fisher was not the only person to claim, incorrectly, that we did not substantiate our claims. On Wednesday's edition of CBC's The Current, Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo said there "wasn't anything to substantiate" our claims of nepotism and favouritism. Yet our study cites a 2008 report commissioned by the Canadian Millennium Scholarship Foundation, which gathered information from 40 different focus groups that included Indian youth in secondary school and post-secondary education. The report spoke of students who were passed over for funding because of their age, the past performance of family members, and whether or not they had children. Other students complained of a "lack of transparency," saying that PSSSP funding often dependent on relationships with band leadership. Moreover, off-reserve students were far less likely to receive funding (Malatest & Associates Ltd. and Stonechild, viii). We would be the first to agree that it is highly desirable for us to know more about these programs. On the other hand, the evidence that there are serious problems with PSSSP is strong, and in the face of that evidence the responsibility falls to the opponents of reform to justify the status quo.

Our view is that the available evidence demonstrates that the status quo is not working for Aboriginal students. Fisher disagrees, claiming the PSSSP "has been highly successful, supporting approximately 23,000 students last year." However, this number does not say whether the students received full tuition with room and board, or $50 a month. It also neglects to mention the number of eligible students who do not receive funding. In Shawn Atleo's own words on The Current, there are "at least ten thousand… possible students whose dreams have been delayed or denied." Denial of funding to ten thousand students does not sound like a "highly successful" program to us. We can do better. Our reform proposal would guarantee that any and every status Indian youth wanting to undertake post-secondary education after completing high school would have at least $25,000 available for that purpose.

Fisher also claims "students would only be able to afford one year of post-secondary" under our proposal. This suggests our proposal would decrease funding, which is not true. Our statement of support, signed by 13 people with a strong interest in Aboriginal post-secondary education (most of whom are themselves Aboriginal) explicitly states: "Current levels of federal funding for Aboriginal postsecondary education should be maintained if not increased." Under our proposed Aboriginal Post-Secondary Savings Accounts (APSSAs), current levels of funding could give every Registered Indian student $25,000, before adding in substantial interest. According to Statistics Canada, the average cost of tuition for an undergraduate in 2009/2010 was $4,917; Ontario has Canada's highest average, at $5,951. Thus, before interest, our proposal would allow every registered Indian student to pay the average cost of four years' tuition in any province in the country. This is a far cry from the current state of affairs, where wait-listing has become widespread.

[Continue reading Part II]

Calvin Helin and Dave Snow