36th Annual General Assembly

Address delivered by The Right Honourable Paul Martin

July 9th, 2015


Good afternoon, Elders, veterans, National Chief Bellegarde, members of the AFN executive, Chiefs-in-Assembly.

To begin, I would like to recognize the Haudenosaunee, on whose traditional territory we are gathering. And ladies and gentlemen, I would like to thank you for the invitation to join you to discuss the status of First Nations education today.

In 1996, The Royal Commission on Aboriginal People issued its report on a wide range of areas including education. It was one of the most important documents of its kind in our history. Yet despite this, its impact, was to remain limited.

In 2006, after 18 months of negotiation the Kelowna Accord was agreed to by the country’s Indigenous leadership, by the Premiers of the provinces and territories and the Prime Minister of Canada. Unfortunately however both the consultative approach and the substance of Kelowna were ignored by the new Federal government that took office later in the year, and the 5 billion dollars booked to eliminate the gaps in education, among other areas was diverted elsewhere.

After that, much time passed, then a couple of years ago, the Federal government agreed to reengage with the First Nations to deal with the massive funding gaps in “on” reserve education that had gotten much worse since Kelowna’s demise.

At the beginning of these negotiations there were hopeful signs, but at the end, the government simply dropped a piece of legislation on the table, with no immediate new funding and the brutal admonition that it would be the government’s plan or no plan.

And finally the most recent event in this saga, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which has just issued its historic report. It was a wakeup call to the country and was received with great enthusiasm, most of us hopeful that it represented a new beginning. Unfortunately since then however, the silence from the government has been deafening and the worry that history may repeat itself is now palpable.

My remarks to you today have but one purpose and that is to say “this time, things must be different”.

Il y a un mois, la Commission de la vérité et réconciliation a émis son rapport historique. Cet appel à la nation a été reçu avec enthousiasme par des millions de Canadiens. Mais malheureusement, encore une fois, le gouvernement reste silencieux et inactif. Membres de l’Assemblée des Premières nations, « Il faut que les choses changent! »

Let us be clear, the recommendations of the TRC cannot be allowed to moulder on some dusty archival shelf. The question is, how do we make the recommendations live?

And the answer, in terms of education is “you” can make them live if instead of seeking to debate some lifeless piece of legislation like Bill C-33 which the government refuses to do anyway, the First Nations build internal consensus and then you take the lead with your own plan, showing the country how First Nations education can be so much better, and asking Canadians to join you to make it so.

Why speak to Canadians? Because they want to be your partners and because that is the only way, this government, which holds the purse strings, will get the message.

And how do you take that message to Canadians? You don’t do it by seeking to amend Ottawa’s proposed governance structures for First Nations education, you do it by setting out your own governance structure. You don’t do it by waiting for Ottawa’s education experts to tell you what you can do. There is no department of education in Ottawa, and they don’t have a raft of experts.

You do it by having First Nations educators speak out- for they are among the best in the country and they should be heard from across the land.

In short, it’s not enough to react to government proposals, you must take the lead and if you do, Canadians will listen and they will back you and no government will be able to turn you down.

Why will Canadians come on side? It is because we are a fair people, and when Canadians learn of the discrimination in education funding between two six year olds going to two schools ten kilometers apart, one receiving a government financial contribution of up to 40% less than the other simply because he or she goes to an “on” reserve school, Canadians will be morally outraged.

Following which, when they realise that these students make up the youngest and fastest growing segment of our population, given that we are only 34 million people competing with countries who count their populations in the hundreds of millions, they will ask themselves, what kind of economic lunacy is this?

What then will it take to seal the deal? It will take for you the leaders of the First Nations to set out your own plan for successful education in a strong and united voice. A plan that explains why the First Nations must control their children’s education. A plan that will show Canadians “how” you will run the system. A plan that stresses the importance of languages and culture. A plan that is at the top end of maths, sciences, geography, history and literature.

A plan that speaks to your current successes – which are many – and then explains what First Nations education would look like if you received decent funding. Funding that would not only meet the need, but that would be provided on a consistent basis by the Federal Government as the provinces do for the public school system.

Que faut-il faire pour réaliser cette démarche?  La réponse c’est qu’il faut à tout prix que les Premières Nations mettent sur pied un plan étoffé pour l’éducation et ce, de façon déterminée et d’un commun accord. Un plan basé sur vos réussites actuelles et qui explique en détail ce que l’éducation des Premières Nations serait avec un financement adéquat.

Will the funding required to bring First Nations education to its proper level be costly? Of course it will in the short term, but it will be lot less costly than what we see today when young lives are wasted.

The government says it wants to invest in a strong economy, well let me tell you, there is no return on investment that can top a government dollar spent on a young person’s learning.

Now there are two questions you might want to ask at this point. The first is why am I so convinced that better funding will deliver better results? And the answer is that I have spent the last eight years with Indigenous educators and students, and I can attest to what they can do when properly funded.

Let me just briefly tell you about three of the programs we’ve started.

Six years ago we set up the Aboriginal Youth Entrepreneurship Program at the Dennis Franklin Cromarty First Nations high school in Thunder Bay. Its purpose is to teach entrepreneurship, financial literacy and economic opportunity. Is the course a success? Yes it is. We are now in 46 schools across the country and we continue to grow. Why is the course a success? About four years ago a young Oji-Cree student asked me why we didn’t have more Indigenous examples and role models in our text books.

The light went on. As a result we produced the first set of high school business workbooks and textbooks ever written for Indigenous students by Indigenous teachers about Indigenous entrepreneurs. In other words, if you want a student to succeed -- give them a chance to learn within the context and culture they know.

Second program, the Principal’s Course. This program, set up by Dr. Carlana Lindeman, our Director of Education, is led by a partnership of 13 Aboriginal expert educators and the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Education. The purpose of the course which was actually suggested to us by a number of First Nations principals is to provide principals and vice-principals with extensive professional development while they continue on the job.

Under the best of circumstances running a school is not easy. Doing so in an underfunded reserve school or even more to the point in a remote community is a task worthy of every support possible. Judging from those who have seen the modules, the Principal’s Course, when the pilot begins this September, will make a major contribution empowering on reserve education from the inside of a school where it counts most. In other words, what it will show is that investing in those educators who are on the front lines is key to student success.

The final example I would give as to why funding makes the difference is the literacy program we have just completed at two on-reserve schools, Walpole Island First Nation, and Kettle and Stony Point First Nation, whose Chief Tom Bressette spoke earlier.

A number of years ago, the Province of Ontario initiated a successful program designed to improve the performance of the 100 worst performing provincial elementary schools.

Therefore, five years ago, MAEI decided to do a pilot project on two on-reserve schools in Southwestern Ontario to see if the program could be adapted to the needs of First Nations communities. The results of the pilot were released in Toronto a few months ago and to say their results have exceeded our greatest hopes would be an understatement.

Before the program began, 13 per cent of First Nations students at the two participating schools reached the provincial standard on Grade 3 reading tests, and 33 per cent met the provincial standard in writing. In Grade 6, 17% of students met the provincial reading standard and 39% of Grade 6 students met the provincial writing standard.

After implementing new teaching methods in the Model School Project, almost 70 per cent of Grade 3 students achieved the reading provincial standard and more than 90 per cent hit Ontario’s writing provincial standard, which surpassed the provincial average. In Grade 6, 72% of students met both the reading and writing provincial standard.

Understandably we are now receiving requests for the literacy program from First Nations schools across the country, and you might ask the question why not introduce it in every on reserve school that wants it? That’s what should happen.  Well, that’s what Ontario did. They introduced it in 100 schools right off the bat and it is now part of Ontario’s regular programming which is why Ontario’s literacy rates keep rising. 

The same rationale should be applied to First Nations schools, except that the Federal government “is” the only institution that has the funding to make that happen. And it is examples like these that demonstrate why the discrimination in on reserve school funding has to end.

How can a government deprive one group of 6 year olds of the same opportunity to learn how to read and write that other 6 yr. olds have? It makes no sense! And this brings me to my last point.

Pourquoi suis-je convaincu que si les Premières Nations présentent un plan complet pour leur système d’éducation, les Canadiens vont vous appuyer? C’est parce que tous les grands éducateurs à travers le pays veulent que vous réussissiez et les Canadiens vont les écouter. 

Why am I so convinced that if the First Nations set out a comprehensive plan for their children’s education, Canadians will support you when you ask for fair funding? It is because of the kind of people who want you to succeed, who already support you and to whom Canadians will listen.

The Canadian Teachers Federation is there for you.
Universities Canada is there for you.
People for Education is there for you.
The Learning Partnership is there for you.
The Canadian Education Association is there for you.

And that is just the beginning of the organisations that will rise up to support your call.

For instance, in terms of the Provincial Departments of Education across the country, I have yet to talk to a provincial official who wouldn’t support you. This because unlike Ottawa which has no ministry of education, the provinces understand what you are going through and how expensive education is.

Many of you have partnerships with them already, indeed, for most provinces their success is tied to yours – and they will not let you down.

À travers toutes les conversations que j’ai eues avec les ministères de l’éducation provinciaux, il n’y en a pas un qui ne vous appuie pas! Et ce parce que contrairement à Ottawa, qui n’a pas de ministère de l’éducation, les provinces et les Territoires comprennent très bien ce que vous vivez et à quel point un système d’éducation coûte cher.

The Canadian School Boards Association: Two days ago I was at the annual meeting of the Canadian School Boards Association in Saskatchewan. These are among the most important elected education administrators in the land – and they came out strongly at their meeting with their support for you right across the country.

Il y a un mois j’ai parlé aux Doyens des facultés d’éducation de nos universités lors de leur rencontre annuelle. Je leur ai demandé s’ils seraient en faveur d’une démarche transformatrice par vous, leur réponse unanime est oui.

Five years ago the Deans of Education of Canada’s Universities came to an agreement among themselves called the Accord on Indigenous Education. A month ago I spoke to the Deans at their annual meeting. I asked them if they would support you if you took the lead with your own comprehensive education plan. Their answer was unequivocal – yes they said without hesitation – and referred to their Accord in which they say, and I quote: “Our vision is that Indigenous identities, cultures, languages, values, ways of knowing, and knowledge systems must flourish in all Canadian learning settings.” It doesn’t get any stronger than that.

Members of the Assembly,  I am here to join with you as you speak out for education, but to ask you to do so with one strong voice. Speak out in a voice that builds on the treaties, a voice that builds on the inherent right, a voice that builds on the economic reality that a country with but 34 million people cannot waste a single talent. For Canada’s sake speak out in a voice that reminds us all that the discrimination in funding by the government for Indigenous education, is contrary to every value this country stands for.

Le gouvernement fédéral a l’argent mais c’est vous qui détenez le savoir, les experts, vos expériences propres et uniques. Et les étudiants dont on parle ici sont vos enfants! The federal government may have the money but you have the knowledge, the experts, the experience and the students we are talking about are your children!

And if someone asks you a second time why it is so important, tell them it’s because you love your children as much as any Canadian loves theirs, and you want your children to have every opportunity other Canadians have.

What should your message be? It’s quite simple. Chief Tom Bressette gave it when the results of our literacy project were announced.  He was asked, - “what do these results prove?” His answer was, “It proves that if you give them the tools, our students will do the job.” And he was right!

Thank you.