Liberals given plan to roll First Nations education money out faster, but decided not to

Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett was presented with a plan to roll First Nations education funding out over four years — as the Liberals had promised during the last election — but the government ultimately opted for a slower route, earmarking a large part of the money for after the next election.

In a proposed funding document obtained under access to information, the department lays out a “projected investments” plan to meet the campaign promise of $2.6 billion in additional dollars over four years for kindergarten to Grade 12 school education on reserve.

The documents show much more money would have been available sooner to address the dire state of Indigenous learning had the fast-tracked plan been followed: nearly $3 billion more than current spending track.

Ultimately, the government decided to spend the money over five fiscal years.

Of the $2.6 billion committed in the 2016 budget for kindergarten to Grade 12 education, $801 million (or 31 per cent of all money committed) has been back loaded to 2020-2021, a spending practice the Liberals fiercely criticized during the last Conservative government. The next federal election must be held on or before Oct. 21, 2019.

Under the department’s proposed plan, the money would have been more evenly allocated each fiscal year.

The fact that so much of the money has been put off until after the next election also means it might never be delivered, because a new government could have different spending priorities.

Liberal promises

The Liberal government has committed to spending $2.6 billion over five years — not the promised four — on First Nations kindergarten to Grade 12 education. Twenty-five per cent of the money committed to education is not set to roll out until 2020-21, a year after the next election. (CBC News)

Emails obtained separately under access to information reveal bureaucrats knew they would have trouble getting money out the door in the first year — with funding coming too late to make a difference this school year.

“The first year of investments … we’ll have missed the nominal roll and initial budget cycles for anything new,” a bureaucrat writes to his colleagues. Nominal roll is the term used by the department to refer to the students living on reserve that it funds.

‘It was up to Carolyn to fight for them’

The first promise Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made during the last election campaign was the funding commitment for First Nations learners.

“We will make up for 10 long-lost years,” Trudeau said in August 2015, promising a new “nation-to-nation” relationship with Indigenous Peoples.

“Trudeau’s first promise was the first broken promise, and the fact that it was a broken promise to First Nations children is repeating a long, tired and terrible story in Canadian history,” NDP’s Indigenous affairs critic, Charlie Angus, said in an interview. “They’re nickle and diming kids.”

‘We have children suffering under a system that is an absolute failure. Everybody knows it.’
– NDP MP Charlie Angus

“We have children suffering under a system that is an absolute failure. Everybody knows it, but nobody seems to think that fixing the system and putting that money in the pot is priority No. 1,” Angus said. “Someone around the cabinet table decided they should shortchange First Nations children, and it was up to [Indigenous Affairs Minister] Carolyn [Bennett] to fight for them.”

“She can’t get up and say it’s OK to shortchange children $800 million. She knows how bad this system is. She cares a lot, but her job is to fix this broken department and unless she’s willing to transform the system, she’s guaranteeing another decade of failure,” he said.

The minister’s office did not answer specific questions about why the election promise was broken, or who made the ultimate decision to push back some spending until after the next election. It did not clarify as to why so much of the money is back loaded, and if it was because of capacity concerns.

“Every child deserves the best start in life, which is why our government is focused on properly funding on-reserve education and moving forward on transformational change to support First Nation control of First Nation education,” the minister’s office said in a statement. “Our government is focused on working nation to nation to ensure the goals set by First Nations are achieved and First Nations-led initiatives are supported.”

MMIW Inquiry 20160803

Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett was presented with a plan to roll First Nations education funding out over four years, but the government ultimately opted to earmark much of that money for after the next federal election. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

This development comes after CBC News first reported that bureaucrats in Indigenous Affairs and Northern Development raised red flags about the state of First Nations schools before the last budget, warning the newly minted cabinet minister last November that there is a daunting gap between what the federal government and the provinces are spending on education.

Grading the Gap

CBC News is investigating the quality of First Nations education on- and off-reserve in the wake of the federal Liberal government’s pledge to spend $2.6 billion over five years on kindergarten to Grade 12 learning.

  • Follow our Grading the Gap coverage on, CBC Radio One, CBC News Network and The National.
  • Read stories about students on our interactive page: Grading the Gap

“Additional funding [is] required to support a new system more comparable to provincial systems,” the 14-page briefing note cautions the minister, conceding that funding levels are “significantly higher” for provincial schools in remote and northern locations.

Question Period 20160512

NDP MP Charlie Angus, shown answering a question during question period in the House of Commons, says Bennett ‘can’t get up and say it’s OK to shortchange children $800 million.’ (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The document obtained through access to information also lays bare that most of the money the Liberals have committed to First Nations education was actually money the Conservative government had earmarked for its ill-fated Bill C-33 — the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act — which was shelved after opposition from some First Nations leaders in 2014.

Emails obtained through access to information reveal there was confusion in the department about the Liberal spending plan, with a senior policy adviser saying “it’s hard to make sense of” their election promise. “Do you think they assumed the C-33 money was still booked?” one bureaucrat wrote in September.

“If I understand, this would not be new funds but rather the reassignment of funds based on a new direction forward,” a special adviser in the department writes to her colleagues.

Angus said this exchange is proof it’s difficult to keep track of the department’s math.

“It’s like you’re a rube at the country fair trying to play a shell game. It’s hard to follow the money.”

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