Gord’s faith, Trudeau’s promises & the Liberal Party’s funding cap of 1996

Ongoing implications of cap on funding increases for First Nations education remains concrete amidst Trudeau’s promises for change

Whether you watched it from your couch, or live right here in Kingston, Canadians everywhere will fondly remember The Tragically Hip’s emotional farewell.

The iconic hometown performance that wrapped up the Man Machine Poem tour was hailed as a symbol of our national identity and a staple in our culture. It was there that, in true Canadian style, Gord Downie used the occasion not just to say goodbye, but to make a plea to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau who was there in the audience, clad in Hip fan-wear.

Downie called on Trudeau to continue striving for First Nations’ prosperity as he had done in his platform.

“He cares about the people way up North that we were trained our entire lives to ignore,” Downie announced to the one-third of Canadians tuned in to their final concert.

“You know, Prime Minister Trudeau's got me. His work with First Nations. He's got everybody. He's going to take us where we need to go,” Downie said passionately.

The question is, was Gord right?

According to the Liberal Party Platform, before coming to power last fall, the party pledged $2.6 billion over five years for First Nations’ primary and secondary school funding. Also promised, was an additional $50 million annually for the Post-Secondary Student Support Program (or PSSSP) designed to help Indigenous communities access university and college programs.

The promise was an astronomical leap forward from the previous Harper government’s weak funding commitments, making the proposal popular among voters.

Here’s the problem: in 1996, the federal Liberal Party implemented a two per cent cap on funding increases for First Nations education, which has been in place ever since

Let’s be clear, First Nations communities have suffered chronic underfunding from essentially every government. This has created an unfortunate discrepancy between Indigenous communities and the rest of Canada.

However, campaign rhetoric doesn’t always match reality, so while promises of progress are great, it’s following through that counts.

Nearly a year after the Liberals first took office, funding for Aboriginal students remains severely limited despite primary and secondary funding surpassing the cap. Even worse, the promised $50 million annual PSSSP investment was scrapped in the 2016-17 federal budget.

We need people to hold politicians and their parties accountable to the promises they make in their platforms. This is arguably just as important as electing the right representatives in the first place. Calling for accountability is crucial.  

Last fall, there were high hopes that the Liberals would make good on their pledge to do away with the cap and turn the page. However, disappointment followed.

Where's Gord when you need him?

What makes the two per cent cap so frustrating, isn’t just that it limits already inadequate funding, or that it doesn’t necessarily keep pace with inflation, but since its implementation in 1996, First Nations communities have experienced population growth rates six times higher than that of the rest of Canada.

What the Trudeau government’s failure to follow through on the $50 million investment in post-secondary education for Indigenous youth indicates is, regardless of the party, campaign rhetoric should not always be taken as writing in stone. A forward thinking platform can capture the attention of voters but so can an idealist platform.

Despite the Liberals following through on their massive promise of $2.6 billion in First Nations primary and secondary education funding, postsecondary education funding will remain subject to the ongoing implications of the cap.

This dated policy subjugates First Nations communities. Perhaps in 1996 it didn’t seem like it, however today, 20 years later, it is blatantly apparent. According to the 2016-17 Federal Budget, only 38 per cent of First Nations peoples aged 18-24, living on a reserve have completed high school, compared to 87 per cent of non-Indigenous Canadians.

According to Statistics Canada, those numbers decreased to 9.8 per cent of Indigenous people having a university degree compared to 26.5 per cent of non-indigenous Canadians (aged 25-64). By going back on the promise of post-secondary funding, today’s Liberal government continues that narrative.

So was Downie’s appeal to Trudeau in vain? I would say not entirely. The Liberals have, quite literally, redoubled funding for First Nations education since last fall. A huge step in the right direction.

But the Liberals need to follow through on election promises. An ambitious platform might win you a majority, but following through will win you a lot more down the road. As the voting public, we must tread cautiously, think critically and advocate for accountability.

It boils down to trust, and our trust, as the public, is valuable. 

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