The Drummond Commission and First Nations Education

On February 15, 2012 the Commission on the Reform of Ontario’s Public Services released the long awaited “Drummond Report.” Don Drummond, the former Chief Economist for TD Bank, was asked to lead the Commission and help balance Ontario’s budget by 2017-18. Drummond claims that in order to meet this target, the government must restrict the growth in public expenditures to a mere 0.8% per year for the next seven years. Meeting these targets without compromising the quality of services will be challenging and may require substantial restructuring in the funding and delivery of public services. Given projected population growth and inflation, real per capita spending will actually have to decrease by 16.2% over that period, an annual drop of 2.5%.

The notable exception to this rule is First Nations education on-reserve: and rightly so. While education generally falls under provincial jurisdiction, First Nations education on-reserve is a federal responsibility. The federal government has committed to providing education that is “comparable” to provincial schools, but outcomes on-reserve remain much worse. During the Crown-First Nations meeting in January, regional Chiefs identified education as a policy priority.

This discrepancy can be party attributed to a significant funding gap between on and off-reserve students. In 1996, the federal government capped the growth of educational expenditures on-reserve at 2% despite inflation and growing enrolment. Over this same period, Ontario’s provincial education funding increased an average of 4.1% per year even as enrolment decreased. Furthermore, because early-childhood education and full-day kindergarten are provincial initiatives, these programs will not be implemented on-reserve. The cumulative effect is a $3.2 billion funding gap between on and off-reserve education.

Yet, this should be of concern to all Canadians for both economic and moral reasons. Education is an important determinant of individual success as it affects health, labour force participation, future wages, and economic output. In fact, the Centre for the Study of Living Standards estimates that if Aboriginal education levels were at parity with the Canadian average, Canadian real economic output would increase a cumulative $400 billion from 2001-2026. Clearly First Nations education is an important national investment. Furthermore, Canadians value equality, and not all Canadians are given the same opportunities. It is simply unjust for one segment of the population to be disadvantaged because they are born on a reserve.

The Commission has recommended that Ontario pressure the federal government to address this gap by providing comparable funding to First Nations communities. Most importantly, Drummond asserts that if the federal government refuses to meet this obligation, Ontario should fill the void by funding First Nations schools at the same level as adjacent public school boards.

The Drummond report should be commended for recognizing that First Nations education is not only an Aboriginal issue, but a national issue. If our governments do nothing, we risk wasting the economic potential of a growing segment of the population, and perpetuating an unacceptable level of social inequality. Let’s hope that one level of government is up to the task.