The first productive step was taken by both the Alberta Government and Hobbema’s Maskwacis Cultural College (MCC) toward equal funding of the post-secondary school.
On Aug. 6 staff of the school, former students, chiefs of Hobbema’s Four Bands, Wetaskiwin-Camrose MLA Verlyn Olson, and Thomas Lukaszuk, deputy premier and minister of enterprise and advanced education, gathered at the school to talk openly about the college requesting equal opportunity and funding.
“We’re looking at stability and funding from the government,” said executive director Patricia Littlechild.
Along with many other First Nations schools and organizations, MCC has been limited to pilot project grants and the one-year funding isn’t enough to ensure the future of their endeavors.
“We need some financial stability to ensure the future of the college,” said Littlechild.
MCC has operated for 39 years and in that time graduated between 2,500 and 3,000 students in certificate, diploma and degree programs. The college is also provincially sanctioned.
The Alberta Government has a $2 billon base operating budget for other educational institutions, however, MCC has no access to that money or the capital budget.
“There’s no reason we can’t get a cut of this funding. We just want to be treated fairly,” said Littlechild.
MCC has been at its current location for 16 years and in that time has reached its capacity of 200 students and battles with continual roof leaks, damaged equipment and many other disadvantages that come with a lack of funding. “We’ve been patching this building for five years but we can’t do it anymore,” said Littlechild.
Littlechild and MCC staff feel to provide First Nations students with the education they deserve, an institution is needed to support the idea.
Next year MCC is hoping for break ground on a new, three-storey, culturally focused school.
“We’ve had a lot of challenges over the years. We’ve overcome all the challenges we’ve faced up to this point,” said Montana Chief Bradley Rabbit.
“We do believe that educating our own people is going to be a key factor,” he added.
Littlechild says it’s time the provincial government takes a closer look at First Nations’ colleges and revamp their programs to meet their needs.
“We’re not going to go away, we’re not going to dissolve and we’re not going to join anyone,” said Littlechild. She wants joining another institution as a separate campus to be MCC’s last option because it’s another way of forced assimilation on the First Nations people.
Historically, student dropout rates between kindergarten and Grade 12 are high among First Nation communities. In kindergarten to Grade 12 education the federal government funds approximately $4,000 per student on reserves. Off reserves the provincial government funds $7,000 per student.
“So right off the bat, in kindergarten a child on a reserve is at a disadvantage,” said Lukaszuk. “We decided a child is a child.”
Lukaszuk wants to work with MCC to develop ways to lower those dropout rates and entice the students to continue their education. “I think we can’t afford not to try different models.”
Littlechild believes it is First Nations history still playing a part in those dropping out. “I don’t think education is a big winner among us yet. After the atrocities you have to heal.”
Fewer First Nations students in post-secondary schools contributes to the continuing labor shortage in Alberta, and more temporary foreign workers are filling the gaps.
“Our number 1 priority is to make sure Albertans are employed first,” said Lukaszuk. “To do that we have to make sure our kids have the education they need.”
“It breaks my heart we’re bringing in workers from foreign countries to work while we still have high unemployment rates in our aboriginal communities. It’s simply not the right thing to do,” he added.
However, Lukaszuk acknowledged, despite Littlechild’s concerns, immigrants and foreign workers are keeping Canada alive because alone the country’s population is not growing fast enough to sustain itself.
For First Nations people to be accepted to those jobs they first need the training and skills.
“If you keep funding away from this huge labor pool we have of First Nation people it’s going to have a negative impact and everybody’s going to feel that negative impact, it’s not just First Nations people,” said Rabbit.
Lukaszuk wants to look closer at models in New Zealand and Australia because their First Nations people are sitting at much lower dropout rates.
To increase the level of post-secondary education the students at MCC have access to, Lukaszuk feels it would be advantageous for MCC to work with other institutions and let them run programs through the school.
“We should be looking at partnerships — I agree with you not takeovers — but partnerships with other schools that deliver these programs.”
In the past MCC has worked with SAIT and NAIT to bring more trades programs to First Nations students but the costs of subcontracting the larger schools was too expensive.
Littlechild says through NAIT a 70-hour IT course ran approximately $4,000 per student.
If MCC joined the Campus Alberta program they would receive funding along the model the 26 other involved schools do.
The Augustana campus in Camrose joined Campus Alberta because it began as a private, religious institution that lacked funding and was also challenged with degrading infrastructure.
However, by joining Campus Alberta and the University of Alberta they were able to receive more funding yet still keep their identity and continue to fill a niche.
Olson wants MCC staff and the chiefs to keep Campus Alberta in mind. “We’ve got a little experience in respecting local autonomy,” he said.
Littlechild agrees having other institutions such as NAIT run programs through MCC would benefit the students but she feels they aren’t the only school with the ability to offer the services.
“It’s not difficult to have that expertise. We already have the expertise . . . Now if you can build us an institute of technology — the Maskwacis Institute of Technology for the trades — we will become experts like that too. It’s not so far reaching that we cannot be,” said Littlechild, who feels the only thing MCC needs is degree granting status in those areas of study.
For 25 years the school fought for degree grating status in their social work program. Now that it’s granted they are able to run a program matching the qualifications of the University of Calgary.
Lukaszuk says advancing MCC will require give and take on both sides. “Nothing will happen unless the two of us agree and sign off on it . . . Two partners have to be 100 per cent comfortable that this is the right thing for the community and for the province,” he told Littlechild.
Olson and Lukaszuk acknowledge they may be stepping into federal territory by taking with and entering agreements with MCC but Lukaszuk feels he can no longer wait for the federal government to step up to the plate.
He feels the levels of government can argue divided responsibility but while that takes place no actions will. “At the end of the day those arguments don’t do any good to real people.”