EXSHAW – After the local school board made a difficult decision to close the Exshaw School last week, federal and provincial politicians are speaking out.
Alberta’s Minister of Education, Adriana LaGrange, and Minister of Indigenous Relations, Rick Wilson, co-wrote a letter to Indigenous Services Canada in December concerning a $1.6 million shortfall in funding for Exshaw School, sending out a refreshed statement Tuesday (Jan. 28).
Meanwhile, Banff-Airdrie’s MP Blake Richards took the issue straight to parliament.
“For all their talk about reconciliation, the Liberals are shutting First Nations students in my riding out of their school,” said Richards, speaking directly to Indigenous Services Canada Minister Marc Miller during Question Period in Parliament.
“Exshaw School is home to nearly 200 First Nations students. The Liberals have terminated a 47-year-old agreement and cut funding for the students. The school’s left with an insurmountable $1.6 million shortfall and will be forced to close their doors if Indigenous Services Canada continues to refuse to work towards a solution.
“Why are they shutting the door on Indigenous students and the school they’ve chosen to attend?”
Richards finished speaking to a round of applause. Miller rebutted his comments, saying ISC intends to leave no First Nations student out in the cold.
“To put it clearly, no First Nations child will go without funding,” he said.
“This is about advancing First Nations control of First Nations education. Stoney Nakoda and the Stoney Education Authority (SEA) expressed an interest in taking over the administration of their own funding agreement with the Canadian Rockies Public Schools (CRPS) division from my department, and we did so. Funding will continue to be provided by my department to the schools based on actual costs of educational programming until a new education agreement is negotiated and finalized with the First Nation.”
The Outlook contacted ISC early last week to find out what it would define as “actual costs,” however, the department has yet to respond.
Meanwhile, a joint statement from Alberta's Minister of Education Adrianna LaGrande and Minister of Indigenous Relations Rick Wilson expressed a deep concern for the roughly 200 Stoney Nakoda students who’s next semester of schooling is currently up in the air.
“We are extremely concerned by the federal government’s recent decision to terminate the funding agreement for First Nations students attending Exshaw School without a plan to work with these students, their families, or the Canadian Rockies School Division. This short-sighted decision has forced Canadian Rockies School Division to vote in favour of repurposing the school,” read a statement from the ministers.
“Exshaw School has been supported by federal funding since 1973. Roughly 99 per cent of the students attending the school are from Stoney Nakoda First Nation.”
LaGrange and Wilson wrote a letter concerning Exshaw School to ISC dated for Dec. 17, 2019, however, the ministers indicated they did not receive a response from the federal department.
“In December, we wrote to Marc Miller, federal Minister of Indigenous Services, expressing our concern about the decision and urged him to reconsider this funding decision. To date, our requests have gone unanswered,” the statement continued.
“This decision by the federal government is not an effective or appropriate way to support the education needs of First Nations students. It will eliminate this important educational choice for a significant number of First Nations families, which may in turn have a detrimental impact on the students attending the school."
During an emotional CRPS board meeting last Thursday (Jan. 23), elected officials made the decision to officially close the school effective at the end of the 2019-20 school year.
The decision came after months of back and forth communications with ISC resulted in no solutions in terms of clarity surrounding changes being introduced by the federal government to educational funding for First Nations students.
“I am completely gutted by the federal government pulling this away from us,” said Exshaw School board trustee Jen Smith through tears.
“We have worked so hard and we have those numbers [high attendance, graduating students]. What we’re doing is incredible and yet they won’t come to the table and negotiate properly – it shakes me to my core.”
The decision to no longer operate Exshaw School was the result of funding program changes ISC announced last year. Upon learning that Indigenous education funding was going to change, CRPS reached out to ISC to understand how those changes would affect the Exshaw School specifically. CRPS estimated the changes would result in a $1.6 million budget shortfall for the school.
According to the approved motion by the school board, Exshaw School could be repurposed in three ways after it is closed.
The facility could be utilized to expand programming from the Outdoor Learning Center (OLC); temporary residence equipment currently being stored at a different schools within the division will be moved to Exshaw School to support OLC programming; and the board will “entertain other programming opportunities for the facility such as, but not limited to, the community library.”