On Wednesday March 17 Calvin Helin joined host Anna Maria Tremonti on CBC radio's The Current to talk about Free to Learn. You can listen to the clip here. Below is the first part of the transcript from that interview:
ANNA MARIA TREMONTI (Host): Well, across the country the numbers paint a disturbing picture. While 18 percent of Canadians have a university degree, only three percent of registered Status Indians do. And since post-secondary education is associated with higher earnings, more savings and lower unemployment, that's of concern. The federal government spends 314 million dollars a year trying to address that issue. But according to a new report, the approach Ottawa is taking is not working. Calvin Helin is the co-author of that report. It is called Free to Learn: Giving Aboriginal Youth Control Over Their Post-Secondary Education. Calvin Helin is also the president of the Native Investment and Trade Association. He's in High Level, Alberta. Good morning.
CALVIN HELIN (President, Native Investment and Trade Association): Good morning.
TREMONTI: What concerns do you have about the way post-secondary education for aboriginal students is currently funded in Canada?
HELIN: Well, if you talk to aboriginal students themselves, they highlight the number one concern as, as lack of access to education dollars. And unlike mainstream society folks, most aboriginal parents do not have the resources. They're, they're impoverished and are unable to send their, their kids to, to post-secondary education. And so, what happens is the federal government provides the finances. And currently what happens is the monies are provided in block funding to communities and they're controlled by the, the chief and council. And the monies are provided for purposes of post-secondary education. But there are two problems with the existing program. Firstly, the monies are not sufficient at present to provide educational financing for all of the students that want to attend school.
TREMONTI: Okay. So there's not enough, right? Okay. It goes to the band council? Is that what you're saying?
TREMONTI: Of, of every reserve?
HELIN: That's right.
HELIN: Secondly, there have been various studies pointing out, including government audits, that a lot of the time the band councils don't use the money for what it was intended. They get, the monies get used for other purposes. And in the context of a band council the education monies become a source of patronage. So, if you happen to know the right people and so on and so forth you get funded, whereas if you don't, you don't get funded.
TREMONTI: You don't get the money, right.
HELIN: And the, the issue is really, there's two aspects to why this is important. First of all, it's absolutely incredibly important to the aboriginal communities themselves because we need to try to lift the standard of living of aboriginal people. The statistics and the social pathologies that exist in aboriginal communities are, are horrendous and really of third world status.
TREMONTI: So, what are you saying about changing that structure? What do you want to see instead?
HELIN: Okay. Well, let me just provide you with the second reason why this is important for Canada. This is important for Canada because with our aging population and the third of the population getting set to retire, the most efficient thing and optimal thing Canada can do is to try to get the young aboriginal and rapidly growing aboriginal population into the workforce. So, what we've proposed then is the ultimate, I think it's the ultimate form of, of empowerment and putting responsibility for education where it belongs, in the hands of the students themselves.
TREMONTI: And what would you do?
HELIN: Well, what we would do is we would essentially set up a, what's equivalent to an RESP. And that is, when an aboriginal, when a registered Indian is born that there will be an amount of money transferred in from the Department of Indian Affairs into a financial institution, into a trust account, and that trust account collects interest as the, as the years go by.
TREMONTI: In the child's name.
HELIN: In the child's name.
HELIN: And he controls it or she controls it. And as they go from grade six to twelve there's an additional amount of money put into the account. And the, the value of that is that it creates an incentive as the, as the child is going through school to see that they're actually building their own equity as it were in their education and creates an incentive for them to finish school so that at the end of the, when they graduate out of high school they have 25,000 dollars plus interest to be able to, to be able to apply to their post-secondary education at any certified educational institution.
TREMONTI: Now, would this be for anyone living on or off-reserve?
HELIN: Right now, yes, exactly.
TREMONTI: Right now it's only available, the funding you were talking about is only for people on-reserve, right?
HELIN: It's, it's available for people on and off-reserve. But the tendency is that a lot of people off-reserve, since they don't know people, know the leaders on the reserve don't get funded.
TREMONTI: Okay. And this would be for full Status Indians. Would both parents have to be fully First Nations?
HELIN: They would have to be a registered Indian under the rules of the Indian Act, and that's a complicated question because of a lot of different things.
TREMONTI: We won't get into that because of time. But now, would it only be university or would it be any post-secondary? What about skilled trades? What about things like that?
HELIN: It could be for any certified educational institution. And they would have the choice. The choice would be in their hands. So, this, this proposal would solve two problems. It would eliminate all the existing problems with the current way of paying for post-secondary education. Secondly, it would ensure that every aboriginal registered Indian in Canada would, would have their education funded.
TREMONTI: Now, if they don't go to post-secondary education, what happens to that money?
HELIN: Well, what we're proposing, and this is a proposal. So, a lot of this is subject to, to discussion.
HELIN: But, we're proposing that they be given a ten-year window to attend a post-secondary educational institution. If they choose not to do so, then the monies that were earmarked for them, which would be collecting interest, would go back into the fund and finance other students.
TREMONTI: Okay. Calvin Helin, we have to leave it there. But thank you for talking to me.
TREMONTI: I'm sorry and I just mispronounced your name. It's Calvin Helin. He is the president of the Native Investment and Trade Association and the author of Dances With Dependency. He was in High Level, Alberta.