Senator Patrick Brazeau answers Grand Chief Ron Evans of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs in the Winnipeg Free Press:

Change funding model for First Nations students

In his recent column, University trust funds a bad idea (March 26), Grand Chief Ron Evans of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs states reform of First Nations is required in order for our youth to have a better future. He couldn't be more right in making this assertion. Too bad it is the only positive pronouncement he has to make in respect of his criticism of the recently announced Macdonald Laurier Institute report, Free to Learn: Giving Aboriginal Youth Control Over Their Post-Secondary Education, authored by Calvin Helin and Dave Snow.

Evans asserts that the ideas presented in Helin's paper are simply not based on fact or sound research. He's entitled to such an opinion.

However, as the leader of the Manitoba chiefs, one would think he might have more to say about proposing alternatives to progressive and fresh ideas such as those expounded by Helin.

Clearly, he doesn't, though. Evans cites myriad grievances in the past as obstacles to the future. Nowhere does he begin to own up to the realities of the present. Annually, $314 million in post-secondary education funding is transferred from Indian and Northern Affairs Canada directly to Indian bands.

Were accountability and transparency assured in the interest of making sure that funds go to the potential students, Evans' position might be more defensible. But there are some fundamental issues with education funding -- and while Evans might try to undermine confidence in Helin's research, INAC's own internal audit report of the post-secondary education program, released in January 2009, is clear in respect of the problems.

A lack of sound stewardship, inequitable access and distribution of funds and a lack of sound performance measurement are just some of the findings uncovered in the audit. What's more, despite their critical importance to the development of young First Nations minds, post-secondary monies are often spent on things other than education -- at the discretion of First Nations chiefs and band councils.

As for the perennial complaint about needing more money, in fiscal year 2006-2007, there were actually reported surpluses in post-secondary education funding among some recipients.

There can be no denying that longer-term fixes are required. So are new ideas. Grand Chief Evans needs to stop looking inward and backward and redefining problems that others are dealing with in the absence of any progressive thought by him and those of his ilk.

The Macdonald Laurier Institute and authors Helin and Snow are to be commended for their creative, pragmatic approach to dealing with a major impediment to First Nations success at the personal, grassroots level.

As we look to ideas of reform around higher learning for First Nations students, the chiefs have an opportunity to be part of the solution instead of being one of the root causes of the problem.

Meanwhile, another generation of First Nations students waits for change and sighs at the inaction of its leaders.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 1, 2010 A11

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