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BC indigeneous post-secondary institutes in 'dire straits' after funding changes

Federal changes to the Indian Studies Support Program has left 40 First Nations adult learning centres and post-secondary institutes without federal funding for the upcoming 2013/14 school year.

Until April 1, a provincial Indian Studies Support Program (ISSP) committee composed of representatives from the institutes and sanctioned by Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC) decided funding allocations for the institutes.

Every year First Nations institutes send funding proposals to the committee by January and the committee makes recommendations to AANDC on what programs should be funded, and funding is then issued by April 1 for the school year starting in September. This year, the committee received funding requests that equaled $3.2 million, despite only having a $2.1 million budget for the 40 schools.

But on March 18, the B.C. AANDC office sent the committee a letter indicating AANDC had dissolved the provincial committee and a new national committee would be reviewing the funding proposals: "The selection committee will focus on the role and activities of post-secondary institutions, give priority to proposals leading to high demand occupations and that meet the needs of First Nations and Inuit communities."

Verna Billy-Minnabarriet, chair of the Indigenous Adult and Higher Learning Association that represents the 40 First Nations institutes, says funding decisions for the 2013/14 school year had already been made and the institutes were expecting their money by April 1. She says sending the proposals to a national committee for review is “ludicrous.”

"I don't think that centralizing a proposal process under this structure, especially when (a national committee) have no understanding of the regions (the institutes are located in), I don't understand how they’re going to apply that funding," she said, adding none of the institutes have received their federal funding and many are in "dire straits."

"It is an unconscionable act because there is no reasoning around interrupting the lives that are being impacted. It puts a stop to many lives of our students in our communities who are on their learning journey, and now they're stuck, they're stymied, and I think that's unacceptable."*

Billy-Minnabarriet adds that the B.C. institutes have been receiving $2.1 million every year for the past 15 years, not taking into account inflation or the rapidly increasing First Nations population, which is much younger than the non-aboriginal population. She says they should be receiving at least $15-$18 million, putting them roughly on par with public institutions providing similar programming.

An audit of AANDC's post-secondary funding programs shows ISSP funding increased by five per cent in six years to just over $21 million for the national program in 2010/11, but it doesn’t indicate how the funding was allocated.

The Tyee contacted AANDC about the change but has yet to receive a response. However according to their website, government will prioritize funding for programs that meet labour market needs and train students for high-demand including lawyers, doctors, managers, supervisors in the oil, gas, and forestry resources, engineers, and architects.

Billy-Minnabarriet and Tyrone McNeil, then-president of the BC First Nations Education Steering Committee, wrote a letter to AANDC on April 11 outlining their concerns with the change, which they say were made without proper consultation with First Nations. They have yet to receive a response.

But today the Union of BC Indian Chiefs issued a press release decrying the move, with President Grand Chief Stewart Phillip calling the move "just one more example of the Harper Government's 'father-knows-best' attitude to First Nations education."

Billy-Minnabarriet says this support from the province's chiefs provides the political clout First Nations institutions need to push AANDC to keep the funding model status quo.

"Now that our chiefs are involved, hopefully something will happen. But it's Harper's way of demoralizing indigenous peoples once again and using it as a stick. He's using the money as a stick: 'If you Indians do as you're told, we'll all be okay.' And it's unacceptable in this day and age," she said.

* Updated at 5:16 p.m.

Katie Hyslop reports on education and youth issues for The Tyee Solutions Society. Follow her on Twitter.

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