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Feds kept First Nations in the dark about significant changes to post-secondary education program

Lack of consultation, delays and disruption a snapshot of AANDC indifference to First Nations' concerns

by J.W. Coady

Feds kept First Nations in the dark about significant changes to post-secondary education program
On April 10th, 2014, the federal Conservatives introduced their much-proclaimed legislation on First Nations education, the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act. Just a month earlier, Louis John Diabo learned that the federal government had removed First Nations’ control over an important First Nations post-secondary education program.
 
Diabo, director of Finance Operations at the Education Center in Kahnawà:ke, had been invested in pressing the government for updates on the Indian Studies Support Program (ISSP) since December. The proposal-based funding program, which was designed to assist institutions in delivering college- and university-level courses to First Nations and Inuit students, had been managed by the First Nations Education Council until April 2013, when the federal government abruptly decided to rescind its control. But despite repeated demands from the Council and member communities like Kahnawà:ke for clarification on the rationale for the decision and the future of the program, none would be forthcoming.
 
Then, on that day in March in 2014, through a cursory visit to the Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC) website, Diabo learned that the program had been replaced by the ‘Post-Secondary Partnerships Program (PSSP).'
 
In keeping with the name change, First Nations and Inuit education organizations and First Nations post-secondary institutions were now expressly barred from applying for funds on their own initiative; henceforth, they would have to find partners in Canadian post-secondary institutions in order to receive funding for their programs.
 
Diabo was shocked. The changes were made without any consultation or notice; not Diabo, nor any other representative of First Nations Education Council, had any inkling that they were coming. The government had already taken away the FNEC’s management of ISSP proposals; now, the removal of First Nations education organizations and post-secondary institutions as eligible recipients meant that the process would no longer be driven by First Nations communities.
 
The change created a logistical nightmare: In the previous months, working under the assumption that the status quo ante would continue to apply, the FNEC and its member communities had invested significant time and resources in preparing students for the upcoming semester. Several multi-year projects had already been approved under the old guidelines. All of a sudden, the status of these projects was put in doubt.
 
In Diabo’s case, 31 students were affected. They were enrolled under an ISSP program, the Certificate in Education for First Nations and Inuit, previously approved for 2013-2014. In previous years, the Kahnawake Education Center had partnered with McGill University to run variations of the program. This year it was to be a teacher training course with a tie-in to the Mohawk language. The education counselor had already begun working with the students, advising them and preparing them for the upcoming semester. Their classes were to start in late August.
 
Diabo immediately contacted the regional AANDC office to demand some answers and express his outrage at the change. “We contacted them, and they said, 'No, we don’t know anything about it,'"says Diabo. “They claimed they were learning about it just as quickly as we were. The press release came out a week later.”
 
In a follow-up email to the regional AANDC office, Diabo reiterated his community’s concerns, while serving notice of the Education Center’s intention to move forward with the year-two proposal for the Teacher Certification Training program with McGill University in spite of the changes, and with the expectation of full support from AANDC due to the ‘unacceptable way’ they were enacted.
 
“The alarming news that you are taking the program AWAY from First Nations and giving it to non-Native Post-secondary Institutions (encouraged to partner with us, but not required to) is a major policy change and affects the 31 students that we have enrolled […],” he wrote. “These are people’s lives and careers we are dealing with here, and I am quite appalled at the fashion in which AANDC has done this, which is consistent with everything the federal government has been doing recently in relation to First Nations education.”
 
Shortly after receiving news of the changes, the Kahnawake Education Center organized a meeting with McGill to discuss their options. It was decided that they would write the proposal together, and that McGill would submit it under the new guidelines.
 
McGill went ahead with its plans, investing time and effort in preparing a submission, according to Diabo. The project was submitted and it got approved by the government. But when it came time to implement the agreement, the government realized at the last minute that certain prohibitions in Quebec legislation disallowed the direct funding of the program through the university. That’s when the government asked Kahnawà:ke to flow the new PSPP funds through their band council agreement.
 
For Diabo, this was too much to bear. In a September 19th e-mail to an education advisor in the AANDC regional office, Diabo characterized the move in plain terms: “The fact that you have unilaterally taken away the program from First Nations’ control,” he wrote, “without consent or consultation and now want to flow it through our existing financial agreements is a slap in the face to First Nations and in particular Kahnawake who has successfully administered this program with the FNEC for many years.”
 
Despite the bad blood, the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake agreed to amend its 2014-15 funding agreement so that Kahnawà:ke could receive funds for McGill. A total of $190, 837 was allotted to the community with the proviso that the money be spent ‘in agreement with McGill and in accordance with the terms agreed upon by both parties.” The money would also have to be spent before March 31st, the hard deadline for the government’s fiscal year.
 
But because the approval of the project came so late in the year—in October—the 31 students had already lost their semester. “Basically people’s careers and lives got put on hold for one semester because the government was mismanaging it,” Diabo says. “It’s atrocious.”
 
Diabo notes that some of the students were teachers in his community, others were training to become teachers. All had expected funding for the approved Certificate Program—which programs are typically approved for a 3- to 4-year period—to roll over year by year.
 
Although the Education Center was able to run classes for the winter semester, other factors complicated the picture. According to Diabo, the band council did not receive the cheque for the allocated funds until February of the following year, forcing Kahnawà:ke to renegotiate its terms of payment with McGill. Diabo credits the positive relationship established with McGill over years as key to finding understanding in a crisis.
 
In addition, Kahnawà:ke had to underwrite the delivery costs of the course for the final months of the winter semester.Kahnawà:ke has to operate on the government’s fiscal year, which runs from April 1st to March 31st, rather than the school year, which runs from September to June. Normally, Diabo relates, the allocated funding that isn’t spent before the deadline has to be returned to AANDC. “When they stopped the funding as of March 31st, we couldn’t just stop the course in April and say there’s no money. We had to absorb that and pay the difference, and we ran a deficit in that regard,” he says.
 
Diabo estimates that the cost of running the program from April to June cost $50,000. “These are the types of things they do that we have to absorb and the general public and Canada don’t know how bad it is,” Diabo exclaims. “If this had happened to McGill university, there’d have been a different reaction.”
 
McGill declined to comment on the affair, but according to Diabo, they were appalled by the whole experience.
 
“McGill was in shock,” he says. “They were like, ‘How could you not just offer the funding to continue? This is people’s lives.’ If that happened to taxpaying Canadian citizens, there would have been hell to pay. But because it’s natives, it’s fine.”
 
On January 19th, 2015, the FNEC and the Assembly of the First Nations of Quebec and Labrador (AFNQL) submitted a file to the Auditor General of Canada containing evidence of “blatant cases of mismanagement of education programs by Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AADNC).” The mismanagement of the ISSP program was one of six documented cases.
 
Eighty per cent of Kahnawà:ke’s funding is block funding that comes from a contribution agreement with AANDC. The remainder is proposal-based, and involves a competitive bidding process whereby applicants submit proposals to the government on a case-by-case, year-by-year basis. The hardship that this arrangement entails for First Nations is lost on average Canadians, Diabo says. For one, he ends up having to spend a lot of time writing proposals, while his community is expected to tackle the problem of creating a culturally relevant curriculum by subsuming theirs in that of the Ministry of Education in Quebec.
 
“To translate the Quebec curriculum into our language and make it culturally relevant costs dollars,” he says. “But there are no dollars given for that. We have no curriculum budget. We receive no funding from Aboriginal Affairs for language development.”
 
“We’re given small budgets that are set up in a way to assimilate and change our way of thinking and force us to follow the path of the average Canadian citizen.”
 
 
 
 

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jwcoady (J. W. Coady)
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