REGINA (CUP) — Hundreds of supporters roared, clapped, and shook signs in support of indigenous educational rights as part of a week-long campaign to raise support for First Nations students.
"Raise those signs again — they tell the story of our country," said Shawn A-in-chut Atleo, the national chief for the Assembly of First Nations, at the atrium of the First Nations University of Canada (FNUC) on September 22.
The nation-wide campaign aims to raise support for the federal Post-Secondary Student Support Program (PSSSP), which provides financial assistance to First Nations and Inuit students, and to advocate for more funding for indigenous-run educational institutions.
The program has seen its funding drop since a two per cent cap was placed on the program in 1996. Originally able to provide funding for 27,000 First Nations treaty status students each year, that number dwindled to 22,000 by 2006.
How PSSSP funding is distributed has become the centre of government scrutiny after the results of a departmental internal audit on the program were published last year. The audit found that a combined lack of program funding and a lack of regulations on how bands use and distribute the funding has stunted the success of the PSSSP.
Additionally, the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs is under a government-ordered strategic review for 2010 to identify programs that can be cut or have their funding reduced.
But Atleo believes more funding is needed for a strong economy.
"There is an educational and employment gap between First Nation and Non-First Nation people in Canada, with only seven per cent of First Nations attaining a postsecondary education, compared to the 24 per cent attainment rate for non-First Nation Canadians," he said.
Citing a Canadian Centre for Living Standards study, Atleo said that if the gap were closed, there would be an additional 65,000 workers in the economy, generating $179 billion in annual Gross Domestic Product by 2026.
Atleo said part of the government strategy to close the gap needs to involve more funding for First Nations-run educational facilities.
An additional $300 million annually is needed for capital and operational costs to put First Nations-run schools on par with their provincial counterparts, said Atleo.
FNUC has felt the funding crunch the most, with $12 million in provincial and federal funding pulled earlier in the year amid allegations of financial mismanagement. The majority of the funding has since been restored.