TORONTO – Chelsea Edwards isn’t looking forward to the start of another school year.
While her peers across the country are shopping for backpacks and school supplies, the 17-year-old from Attawapiskat First Nation is filling her suitcases with clothes, books and anything she’ll need for another year away from home.
And as parents drop their kids off at bus stops and after school activities at the start of a promising new school year, Edwards will fly to Timmins, Ont., where she’ll start Grade 12 away from her family and friends.
And even though she has to leave home and move hours away from her support system for school, she’s one of the fortunate First Nations children in the education system.
This October will mark the one year anniversary since the remote community made national headlines after local officials called a state of emergency over a deplorable housing crisis in the community.
For students, some which may be too young to remember the living conditions, returning to the school will be an easy reminder.
Edwards went to elementary school on the reserve in the remote community of Attawapiskat, hopping from portable to portable outside the school’s main building.
The building was closed down in 2000 – just as she began kindergarten – because of contamination from diesel fuel leaks in the foundation of the school.
She remembers running around the abandoned school during recess as a 5-year-old – the hazardous site wasn’t even torn down until 2009, nine years after the promise of a new school building was forgotten.
The portables were cold; the doors wouldn’t close properly and a draft would enter the classroom so kids kept their jackets and scarves on throughout the day. It was normal.
“When I looked at the portables, I’d see cracks in the walls, mould underneath and outside the building . . . . it wasn’t a real school,” Edwards said.
The story of her plight isn’t unique – it’s one that most children going to school on reserves in First Nations experience, Edwards says.
It’s also one that human rights organizations are trying to shed light on.
Students on First Nations are shortchanged by government funding, advocates argue
Cindy Blackstock has championed the cause for improving education on reserves for almost a decade.
Each child on a First Nation reserve receives between $2,000 and $3,000 less a year than children at other Canadian schools, according to Blackstock, who is executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society.
While most schools in this country receive their funding from provincial governments, funding for First Nations is a federal responsibility.
It’s also doled out under different education laws, Blackstock says. While funding is dependent on a student’s needs in the Canadian school system, Ottawa determines payment to First Nations schools according to population.
Blackstock says this formula Ottawa uses to determine funding doesn’t include costs for libraries, computers and additional support, such as computer labs and music equipment.
Graduation rates are significantly lower in First Nations schools where only about 38 per cent of students graduate from high school, compared to the national average of 89.5 per cent, according to Statistics Canada data.
A lengthy Parliamentary Budget Officer report that was tabled in 2009 documented the shortfalls in funding and how this affected schools on reserves.
There are about 520 band-operated schools in First Nation communities.
Only 49 per cent were listed in “good condition,” about 77 were deemed “temporary structures,” and another 10 were closed because of dire conditions. Another one in five schools weren’t even inspected, including 60 per cent of the schools in Saskatchewan.
About 25 schools were given “poor condition” grades, with the bulk of them in Alberta and British Columbia.
These “poor” conditions can be a myriad of problems – black mould, snake and rat infestations, lack of running water or overcrowding to name a few.
In some instances, overcrowding is an issue that forces students to attend school in shifts with some primary students waking up in the middle of the night to commute to school and attend class, while older students make their way to classes after lunch and into the evening.
Fifty communities don’t have schools within the area, so youth are sent to live in boarding homes at a very young age, Blackstock said, pointing to Thunder Bay, Ont., as a prime example.
“Keep in mind, with First Nation students, we’re talking about kids who are already experiencing significant hardships so these are kids who are in overcrowded homes, one in six do not have clean water to drink and on top of that, they’re dealing with inequality in education,” Blackstock said.
Lack of resources, lack of hope
Edwards has seen firsthand how the disparity in funding affects students on reserves.
The textbooks the students use are outdated and old, Edwards says. There aren’t enough for each student to have their own so they share in groups.
Throughout her school career on reserve from kindergarten to grade 9, Edwards didn’t have homework.
“Honestly, they don’t really assign homework. My first year of high school I barely had any homework, maybe, because we weren’t allowed to take (textbooks) home,” she said.
There was one computer lab for the entire school with about a dozen computers, but it was located in another portable so students would spend classroom time trekking over to the lab or to their next class.
By high school, hallways would be empty with only a handful of students attending class. In one instance, Edwards was the only one who showed up to class so it was cancelled.
“What’s not motivating about going to school here is that even though the teachers try hard to motivate you, the school’s not welcoming,” she explained.
Assimilating into the public school system
By grade 7, Edwards knew she wanted to leave the reserve for high school. She wants to be a lawyer, but the schools on reserve don’t teach academic courses that prep students for university. They also don’t have courses beyond the basics, such as Law or Writer’s Craft, for example.
Youth can head to schools in the public school system as long as they find and afford their own living accommodations with boarding homes.
Edwards bounced between reserve schools and public schools during high school because of financial issues and feelings of homesickness. Her parents paid about $600 a month to cover her rent and meals, but they also had to save up for her school supplies and transportation.
Edwards notes that many families on reserve can’t afford to send their kids away for better education, though.
She caught on quickly that education off-reserve was much more challenging.
“On reserve, it was really easy for me. I was on the honour roll, but when I came down south, it was a whole different story. I was way beyond, and I just felt like I didn’t get it,” she said.
At Timmins High and Vocational School, where she’s completed grade 11 and will begin grade 12, Edwards has textbooks and homework, there are assemblies in the gymnasium and after school activities to join.
Students have internship placements and guidance counsellors to help prepare them for the future.
But this doesn’t exist for her friends who are still on reserve.
“I would have to say they’re helpless. It’s sad to say that. They don’t really have any interest in school, they don’t attend and most of them stopped,” she said, saying that that’s the situation for most youth there.
Steps in the right direction
Last year, Blackstock’s Caring Society along with the religious aid group KAIROS presents their findings on Parliament Hill to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child.
In the March 2012 federal budget, the government announced $275 million in funding to help First Nations education, but Blackstock says the amount of insufficient.
“It’s unsubstantially short of what’s required and unfortunately it’s not going to make much of a dent,” she said.
An independent review panel outsourced by Aboriginal Affairs also returned to Ottawa with a report outlining the shortfalls of First Nations students on reserve, a document Blackstock hopes will force the government into action.
A spokeswoman with Aboriginal Affairs said that the government has invests over $1.5 billion annually to support elementary and secondary education for approximately 117,500 First Nation students living on reserve.
Another $200 million is spent each year to support school infrastructure in First Nations communities across the country, according to an email she sent to Global News.
“We are taking steps to improve educational outcomes for First Nation students through education programs designed to help students succeed. For instance, the Government announced $268 million over five years, and ongoing funding of $75 million in each subsequent year, through the Education Partnerships Program and the First Nation Student Success Program, in 2008,” she wrote, providing a lengthy list of how much funding has poured into First Nations education over the years.
Relentless in asking the government for answers
Still, Blackstock says she writes to Prime Minister Stephen Harper every few months.
And in a few weeks in late September, the government will face the UN Rights of the Child committee, which will provide a review of Canada’s treatment of Aboriginal youth.
“From a human rights perspective, we have to make sure First Nations children have the same opportunities to succeed in ways that make them proud of who they are as other Canadian kids do,” she told Global News.
On the department’s website, it says Ottawa has invested in 22 new schools, 22 major renovation projects and 184 projects involving minor repairs in a joint initiative with the Assembly of First Nations.
Finally, by this same time next year, Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan has promised that a new school will be open in Attawapiskat.
But Edwards and her peers, who have grown up heading to dilapidated portables for classrooms, are skeptical.
“We’ll believe it when we see it,” she said.