Published On: Sun, Jun 10th, 2018

Ottawa must learn from failures on Indigenous programs

More Indigenous children are taken from their homes by children’s aid societies today than were displaced at the height of the residential school system.

The inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women is bogged down in delay and recriminations.

Minister of Indigenous Services Jane Philpott delivers an address at the Assembly of First Nations Special Chiefs Assembly.
Minister of Indigenous Services Jane Philpott delivers an address at the Assembly of First Nations Special Chiefs Assembly.  (Justin Tang / THE CANADIAN PRESS)

And the federal government spent $ 110,000 to avoid paying a $ 6,000 bill for a 16-year-old Indigenous girl’s braces before finally deciding to update its dental care policies.

No matter how many politicians talk about rebuilding the relationship with Indigenous peoples and fixing the failed policies of the past, things just don’t seem to get any better on the ground.

In that context, it’s hardly a surprise that Canada’s auditor general, Michael Ferguson, found yet more examples of federal failure. This time with Indigenous education and employment programs.

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Both are vital to achieving a better future. And that makes Ferguson’s recent report awfully depressing reading.

On education, he found a significant gap in high school graduation rates between Indigenous students living on reserves and other Canadian students.

That’s a problem that the auditor general’s office has reported on before. Not once or twice, but three times — in 2000, 2004 and 2011. And yet this new report shows that the gap has grown over the past 15 years.

Worse still, the government doesn’t seem to even know that.

The government’s data suggests that between 2011 and 2016 one in two on-reserve First Nations students graduated high school. In fact, the figure is just one in four, according to Ferguson.

That means the situation has gotten worse, not better, as the government’s poorly collected data says.

The government only measured the graduation rates of students enrolled in their final year. That means they left out all the students who dropped out between grades 9 and 11, obscuring the true picture.

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Beyond that, they didn’t bother to collect data on what portion of these students were graduating with a diploma that would actually be recognized by a post-secondary institution, enabling them to continue on to the higher education that’s increasingly needed to succeed.

How can Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott possibly expect to fix a problem when her ministry doesn’t even know the extent of the problem?

Education programs, sadly, aren’t the only failure related to incomplete and inaccurate data.

On employment, Ferguson found that Employment and Social Development Canada did not collect the data it needed to assess whether programs aimed at helping Indigenous people find work were actually increasing the number of people finding sustainable jobs.

And this isn’t some new portfolio the department is just getting a handle on; it’s something they’ve been doing for 30 years.

Furthermore, the department’s strategy for handing out funding is based on decades-old data. And it doesn’t reallocate funding to groups proven to be more successful in helping clients find jobs.

So it’s the same basic problems that Ferguson uncovered on the education file: the government isn’t collecting the right data in some areas, and in others it’s not using the data it has to improve outcomes.

Ferguson’s spring report also again exposed the complete disaster of the Phoenix pay system. “A pertinent fact about these two very different incomprehensible failures – Phoenix and Indigenous programs – is that both have been passed on from government to government,” Ferguson wrote.

He’s right. It’s as though governments have stopped believing they can make a difference in the lives of Indigenous peoples and are simply going through the motions.

That can’t continue. As Ferguson points out, failure can be “a way to learn and improve.”

We’ve had far too much of failure just being failure. It’s long past time the government learned something from it.

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TORONTO STAR

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Ottawa must learn from failures on Indigenous programs