Budget 2008 fails First Nation post-secondary students

While I was in Ottawa last week, I took the opportunity to ask Chuck Strahl, Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, about the First Nations Technical Institute issue.

Basically, the federal government recently cut funding to the institution (that offers apprenticeships, diplomas, bachelor’s degrees, and even a master’s in partnership with Ryerson). The province says it won’t pick up the funding to keep the school open because it should fall under the Ministry of Indian Affairs.

After Strahl dodged my first question, I asked him if the federal government would guarantee that FNTI would not close. He told me that the province was responsible for education and basically that it is up to the province of Ontario to replace the funding that the federal government is cutting.

His assistant, in typical government fashion, decided that two questions were more than enough for the Minister to answer and got him out of there. I asked the back of his head if he would guarantee the students wouldn’t be out of a school because of his cuts but the back of his head didn’t answer.

The same lack of commitment to the future of these students is being shown by Ontario’s Minister of Training, Colleges, and Universities John Milloy. Both levels of government are pointing fingers at each other.

The federal and provincial governments are playing chicken. But it will be First Nations students who take the hit for the irresponsible behaviour of both levels of government.

The federal budget included the following paragraph (emphasis is mine):

Budget 2008 dedicates $70 million over the next two years to support tripartite agreements with willing First Nations and provinces, that will set joint goals, share expertise and establish accountability benchmarks to ultimately enhance education outcomes for First Nations students. The focus will be on improving financial and performance management systems and implementing community-based school success plans. The Government will also continue to review its First Nations and Inuit post-secondary education programs to ensure they are coordinated with other programs and that they provide the support that First Nations and Inuit students need to stay in school and complete their education.

I have no idea what this paragraph means. The civil servant in the budget lock-up was unsure if the money would support programs like FNTI but did not believe it was funding for operations, but funding for plans. Community based tripartite agreements to me says the federal government wants to take their FNTI model of “cut-and-run” to other native post-secondary institutes. (I’m not the only one wondering what this $70-million actually means, the Ministry told the Belleville Intelligencer they don’t know exactly what this means for how the money will be spent. The Intelligencer has the same conclusion as I do, FNTI is not seeing one cent out of the budget. The Sudbury Star slams the federal government in their post-budget editorial.)

Right now, the federal government is telling FNTI to make plans to survive without federal funding. Is this the plan the government has in mind? Right now, staff at FNTI have layoff notices and students are preparing to watch their post-secondary institution close. All of this because the federal government says their education is a provincial responsibility.

The feds are surely not the only ones to blame for the uncertainty at FNTI. Even though they cut $1.5-million, the provincial government should be ridiculed for not funding FNTI at a comparable level to other post-secondary institutions in Ontario. The province only funds $671,000 to FNTI. Minister Milloy has been throwing around hundreds of millions of dollars for post-secondary education in announcements over the last month alone – not one cent went to FNTI or any other on-reserve institution.

The thing that bothers me most about this is that $1.5-million is spare change to these governments. Milloy and Strahl probably spend more money shuttling themselves, their staff and entourage across their jurisdictions for photo-ops each year.

This institution makes a big difference to the First Nations students who attend. The stakes are real and they are high: the future of 549 young people who have a chance to obtain a university degree. Both Milloy and Strahl have said this is their goal.

It’s time to prove this goal is more than empty words. Milloy and Strahl should give up a photo-op or two to find the money.