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Joint task force making headway on aboriginal outcomes in Sask.

Two years later, recommendations from a joint task force continue to show promise for aboriginals and non-aboriginals in Saskatchewan.
Two years later, recommendations from a joint task force continue to show promise for aboriginals and non-aboriginals in Saskatchewan. File / Global News

SASKATOON – Saskatchewan continues to learn from recommendations made by a joint task force (JTF) two years ago. The goal? Improving education and employment outcomes for aboriginals in the province.

The 82-page JTF report was released to the public by the provincial government and the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN) on April 15, 2013. Métis Nation-Saskatchewan (MN-S) partnered with the province to conduct a separate, parallel consultation.

Members of the task force travelled across the province conducting 83 meetings in 2012-13 to hear success stories from parties on the front lines in order to provide recommendations that build on those that have the greatest impact in each targeted area on and off reserves.

Members involved with the report agreed the gap in education and employment outcomes between First Nations and Métis people and non-aboriginal people in Saskatchewan is “unacceptable.” Recommendations aim to create better circumstances where the Saskatchewan economy and its citizens succeed in a harmonious future.

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“Our futures are inextricably linked,” according to the JTF report.

In the end, 25 recommendations were made by the task force.

READ MORE: Whitecap, Saskatoon Public Schools sign historic education agreement

To date, 21 have been responded to by the province’s ministries of advanced education, economy, education and Saskatchewan Government Insurance (SGI). Concrete actions taken so far range from helping more aboriginal students obtain their driver’s licence to expanding a Microsoft licensing agreement in classrooms.

The provincial government’s approach to the recommendations is a multi-year, multi-ministry plan to improve education outcomes for First Nations and Métis students.

Over the last two provincial budgets, $12 million has been set aside in direct response to the joint task force.

“In the 2015-16 (provincial) budget, there is $6 million, education specifically, to the response of the joint task force and about $5.1 million of that is tagged to ministry of education here … and the remainder is spread across the ministry of economy and advanced education,” said Greg Miller, Saskatchewan’s associate deputy minister of education.

A number of the initiatives and programs supported by the ministry of education ties into its long-term approach to act on the 10 recommendations specifically directed at it in the final report.

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Retired educator Rita Bouvier was one of the three task force panelists and said they assumed good work was being done in education and employment in the province and much of it would continue after the report was tabled.

On Wednesday, Bouvier said she is aware of positive efforts covered by the task force that have been made to work across education systems and jurisdictions.

“We were challenged by the lack of information and politics surrounding the funding for First Nations education systems,” said Bouvier.

She chose to highlight the Invitational Shared Services Initiatives (ISSI) as an example.

These 16 ISSI partnerships are bringing the provincial education systems and First Nations education organizations together to support student learning by providing access to such help as speech pathologists, math consultants and graduation coaches.

Last month, the ministry of education announced it had allocated $2.4 million in response to this JTF recommendation.

READ MORE: Partnerships extended to aid aboriginal students in Sask.

“What we’re seeing in these ISSI is really the strength of both systems, the federal system has things to offer, the provincial in vice versa, so we’re really encouraged by the work and the leadership that’s being provided there as people come together to solve issues for students,” said Miller.

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“The ISSIs, for example, are supporting work that is not federally funded because we want to be respectful of jurisdiction and the differences between them, however working together to enhance the front line services to kids.”

According to the Ministry of Education, First Nations, Métis and Inuit students (FNMI) make up about 20 per cent of the elementary and secondary student population in Saskatchewan.

Aboriginal-elementary-secondary

The image above was created by Global’s Janet Cordahi.

FSIN second vice chief Bobby Cameron says the indigenous population is growing at a fast pace with some experts saying the province could consist of 25 per cent First Nations people by 2035.

“Right now, we’re sitting at 144,000 First Nations people,” said Cameron.

“We’re definitely falling behind when it comes to the funding capacities and when I talk about funding capacities, we talk about First Nations schools where per year, per student we receive about $6,500 whereas in a provincial public school, they receive just under $10,500 for the same student for the same year,” said Cameron.

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The Saskatchewan Ministry of the Economy is working with companies in the mineral sector to work on the 23rd recommendation. Officials said training providers like Saskatchewan Indian Institute of Technologies (SIIT) have designed and delivered pre-mining programs in collaboration with potash companies.

Cameron says First Nations people must, at some point in time, be fully involved with resource revenue developments so revenue can finance aboriginal education services.

“Once our First Nations become self-reliant and create our own source revenue, through resource development and other sectors, we wouldn’t need any funding to address these problems because we would have our own resource revenue funding, we could fund our own programs,” said Cameron.

“Some very important decisions have to be made and negotiated for our inherent and treaty rights so that they’re protected and our children become part of this economy.”

READ MORE: 25 years since Canada vowed to end child poverty, where are we now?

Despite an economic boom, the task force noted Saskatchewan’s economic growth has not benefitted everyone equally. The report also said indigenous people are subject to labour market segregation, unequal access to employment, vulnerability to unemployment and income inequality.

The Saskatchewan Ministry of Economy said off-reserve aboriginal people had strong job growth of 15.2 per cent over 2009-14.

According to a 2014 survey, Statistics Canada says 76.9 per cent of First Nations and Métis people in the country who have a university degree are employed and 72.3 per cent who have a post-secondary certificate or diploma have a job.

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post-secondary

The image above was created by Global’s Janet Cordahi.

There was a 17 per cent increase from 2008-14 in the number of First Nations and Métis graduates in Saskatchewan that have a post-secondary certificate, diploma or degree, according to Statistics Canada.

Since 2007, the Saskatchewan Ministry of Advanced Education says it has increased direct funding to support aboriginal post-secondary education and training by 54 per cent. It says its investments are showing results with over 16,000 First Nations and Métis learners enrolled at the province’s post-secondary institutions – a 29 per cent increase since 2007-08.

The JTF report said fulfilling treaty and historical rights and obligations recognized by the Canadian Constitution are the basis for a shared and prosperous future.

“Despite everything that has happened to First Nations and Métis, they remained steadfast in protecting the integrity of who they were as indigenous people and the relationship they believe was forged as part of treaties and is recognized in the Canadian Constitution,” said Bouvier.

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“Our inherent and treaty rights, it guarantees us education … when we signed treaties in 1800s we never agreed to surrender the land we only agreed to share and that’s the message, we’re in this province together, we’re in this country together, it doesn’t matter what race, religion or colour we are, we as parents and grandparents want the best life possible for our children and grandchildren,” said Cameron.

The cost of the joint task force was $2 million, which was fully funded by the province.

The report said First Nations and Métis people generally experience a lower quality of life which is often attributed to racism. Racism was defined as a deeper systemic challenge rooted in the history of colonization and it affects individuals and communities today.

To combat racism, the task force heard from participants about the importance of learning a shared history as a starting point.

Bouvier says the JTF’s first recommendation – recognition of First Nations and Métis languages – had key importance for paving the way to reconciliation. She added, her emphasis does not suggest that other recommendations are not significant.

“I do not believe that this recommendation has been addressed … indigenizing and decolonizing efforts in early learning programs, schools, post-secondary institutions and workplaces rely on this foundation,” said Bouvier.

On Wednesday, the Government of Saskatchewan stated it has long recognized the importance of aboriginal languages and culture and it has adopted a more comprehensive approach than originally recommended. It added, the province has supported oral language development, family and Elder engagement through the ministry of education as it responds to the JTF.

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Where do we go from here?

For the future, Bouvier says it was important for all parties with a stake in improving the economic and social well-being of Saskatchewan citizens to come willingly to common tables to put into action the accumulated wealth of directions that had been provided in this report and others like it.

“We heard that First Nations and Métis have been working hard to create change and to forge a different relationship with governments and institutions for a long time now and they remain committed to using their strengths and gifts to rebuild their communities. That said, there are times they need government and institutions to respond in meaningful ways,” said Bouvier.

“We can’t fix everything overnight but we can chip away at it piece by piece, day after day to create a better future for First Nations people,” said Cameron.

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