THUNDER BAY, Ont. — The federal government is under fire for what critics say has been a delayed response in getting back-to-school funding to First Nations amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Wednesday, Ottawa announced up to $2 billion in back-to-school funding for provinces and territories, and another $112 million specifically for on-reserve schools.
The announcement came after Nishnawbe Aski Nation, which represents 49 Ontario First Nations, released a number of public statements accusing the government of dragging its feet on the issue.
Last week, NAN said the government had rejected its request for $33 million in funding, designed to get its nearly 9,000 students back to school safely by providing them with adequate personal protective equipment and sanitization supplies.
Deputy Grand Chief Derek Fox said Thursday the government is now asking NAN to resubmit its request — this time with a budget breakdown for each individual community, which he said will further slow an already protracted process.
Fox said his opinion on Ottawa's efforts hasn't changed, saying $112 million doesn't go all that far when divided amongst the country's roughly 630 First Nations.
"That's not a lot of money considering (NAN) asked for $33 million," he said in an interview.
Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said he understands Fox's concerns, but that multimillion dollar funding "doesn't appear overnight."
He added that this week's funding announcement will not necessarily be the last.
"If there is additional resources that are needed, we are always prepared to engage and see what is the best way forward," he said.
Miller declined to comment on the state of NAN's request, but noted that the money announced this week should start flowing "in relatively short order."
But across NAN, Fox said schools are preparing to reopen even without the COVID-specific funding, and will instead be tapping into resources designed for the regular school year to purchase the supplies needed to make the learning environment safe.
However, he noted that a number of schools are considering pushing the school year back to Oct. 28 — the beginning of the second "quadmester" — or potentially even 2021 if adequate funding can't be secured in time. Schools considering such action include Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School in Thunder Bay and Pelican Falls First Nations High School near Sioux Lookout, Fox said.
Furthermore, Fox said 32 of NAN's 49 communities are remote and can be accessed only by plane. That presents unique challenges, he said, both in terms of getting kids to and from school, and preventing outbreaks that could be triggered by a child bringing the virus home from an urban centre.
Sol Mamakwa, the Ontario NDP's critic for Indigenous relations and reconciliation, says the funding scheme suggests the federal government is treating First Nations students like "chopped liver."
Like Fox, Mamakwa notes the lack of a safe back-to-school pathway opens the potential for students to lose valuable education time, which he said is exacerbated by longstanding issues such as a lack of broadband access on reserves.
Mamakwa — who represents a vast riding in northwestern Ontario that includes several First Nations — has called on Premier Doug Ford to intervene, citing the province's responsibility under provincial treaties to provide equal access to education.
However, he said he has heard nothing from the provincial government on the matter, and he doesn't expect to.
"For the past few years I have been at Queen's Park, it has been like this," Mamakwa said.
"Day after day, month after month, year after year, decade after decade, we continue to be treated by this government in the same way. And we're still here. I don’t have the confidence in the government to fix these issues."
The provincial government did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 27, 2020.
—by Jake Kivanç in Toronto, with files from Nicole Thompson
The Canadian Press