News  Students call on federal government to honour treaty rights to post-secondary education

Over 10,000 eligible First Nations students denied financial support

Students across Canada are calling upon the federal government to honour Aboriginal treaty rights to post-secondary education by removing a cap on funding growth.
Despite increases in tuition across Canada and the expansion of the Aboriginal population, the growth of the Post-Secondary Student Support Program (PSSSP) – a government-funded program that provides financial assistance for Status Indian and Inuit students enrolled in post-secondary education – has been capped at 2 per cent since 1996.

Kakwiranoron Cook, outreach coordinator at McGill’s First Peoples’ House, said that while each First Nation has signed its own treaties with the government, they all guarantee Aboriginal access to education.

According to Aboriginal Students’ Representative for the Canadian Federation of Students Patrick Smoke, “It is a treaty responsibility for the federal government to ensure that every First Nation and Inuit student has a right to education.”

Before the 2 per cent growth cap was put in place, Smoke explained, there were 27,000 students receiving funding from the program. Now there are only 22,000.

Not only are tuition hikes outpacing the growth of PSSSP funding, but the number of Aboriginal individuals who are eligible for funding is rapidly increasing as well.

According to the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), the cap has meant that 10,589 eligible First Nations students were denied financial support from 2001 to 2006 as a result of the limited funding available. In 2007-08, AFN estimated that an additional $197 million would be required to overcome the impact of the cap – this number continues to grow.

According to Smoke, “We’re the fastest growing demographic in Canada. We’re outpacing the birthrate by six times… The number of First Nation and Inuit students who want to attend secondary school is going to expand as well.”

Geneviève Guibert, spokesperson for Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, confirmed that the department’s approved annual growth rate for the program stands at 2 per cent, but clarified that “the overall annual growth rate is larger due to significant investments – nearly two billion dollars – made in priority areas through successive budgets since 2006.”

Regardless of the actual growth rates, many students are finding that PSSSP funds are still not enough. Many students have to take out loans, and Non-Status First Nations and Métis peoples aren’t eligible for funding.

Cook works with First Nations, Inuit, and Métis communities across Canada to connect with youth and promote higher education. He has found that “a lot of people are interested in McGill, but the biggest issue is funding.”

Indeed, as the number of students asking for funding increases, Aboriginal communities are forced to make compromises in how they distribute financial assistance.

For Smoke, this may complicate the continuation of his studies. Smoke is from Alderville First Nation outside Toronto, which recently had to divert funding away from healthcare in order to serve the students who had applied for funding. Because of these budgetary constraints, only the students with the best marks will continue to receive funding come September.

“The thought of having to take on $10,000 of debt to pay for my education next year is a scary thought,” he said. “It’s not right because I am entitled to funding, as is every First Nations student in Canada.”

Removing the current growth cap on the PSSSP to fund all eligible students would require an additional investment of about $250 million annually. According to some calculations, however, this is a small figure compared to what the government might save.

Assembly of First Nations Chief Shawn Atleo recently told the National Post, “If in one generation, we close the education gap, and the labour market gap, this could result in new revenue for the Canadian economy of $400-billion, and savings in government expenditures of $115-billion.”

In spite of these figures, Smoke explained, “It is going to be a difficult task with the conservative government that’s currently in place. Considering their cost-cutting mode, to invest $250 million back a year into post-secondary education for Aboriginal students really isn’t on their agenda right now.”

What may be on the agenda, however, is the complete reform of the PSSSP to a government loan program. The current program – which has been under formal government review for seven years – provides financial assistance that does not need to be paid back by its recipients.

“I can’t imagine what the day would be when they decided to change [the PSSSP] into loans,” said Cook. “There would be a lot of outcry for sure, and it’s hard to imagine what that would do to sway students away from pursuing post-secondary education.”

Smoke added that “a lot of First Nations and Inuit students cannot take on debt… By making [PSSSP] a loans program you’re going to see our numbers drop [in post-secondary education].”

For many of those calling on the government to increase funding to the PSSSP, it is a matter of the government responsibility to honour treaty rights and promote equity.

First Peoples’ House Aboriginal Student Advisor and recent McGill graduate Alyse VanEvery, who received funding from PSSSP, explained that “I’ve heard my non-native friends say, ‘Oh, you’re so lucky, look what you get.’ No, look back, look at the bigger picture. I’m not so lucky. There is such a thing as discrimination in this world,” she said.

“At the end of the day, the government funds students [because of treaty rights], and I don’t think it’s a lot to ask for,” she continued.