Friendship Centres to ensure Aboriginal youth receive postsecondary education funding

Friendship Centres to ensure Aboriginal youth receive postsecondary education funding
A new partnership between various banks, NGOs and friendship centres aims to ensure eligible Aboriginal youth across Canada access their free postsecondary funding.Photo: Photo courtesy of Aurora College.

“Education got us into this mess, and education will get us out of it,” stated Chief Wilton Littlechild, a member of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), during its closing ceremonies last month.

That’s the spirit behind a new partnership intent on ensuring roughly 200,000 Aboriginal children in Canada no longer go without the millions of dollars in free post-secondary education funding that most are currently missing out on.

A new joint effort led by the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation and the National Association of Friendship Centres is aiming to ensure no eligible youth goes without receiving their Canada Learning Bond, a $2,000 no-strings-attached grant for children born after Dec. 31, 2003 whose families receive the National Child Benefit Supplement.

“When it comes to reaching Aboriginal people, Friendship Centres are a great service delivery mechanism,” said Jeffrey Cyr, executive director of the National Association of Friendship Centres. “We believe we can lend a great deal of value to this project by leveraging our national network to launch pilot projects in key Friendship Centres across Canada.”

The bond, offered by the government of Canada, gives low-income families a head start through the creation of a Registered Education Savings Plan (RESP). It begins with a $500 initial contribution, followed by an additional $100 per year until the child turns 15, to a maximum of $2,000 per child. The fund can be supplemented by other grants.

According to the NWT Literacy Council, only about nine per cent of eligible children in the NWT are receiving the money while 3,000 kids are not. That’s three times below the already low national statistics, which indicate just 30 per cent of eligible families are accessing the program across Canada.

Katie Randall, youth and adult services coordinator for the NWT Literacy Council, said the primary issue is awareness.

“A lot of children may be eligible for the Canada Learning Bond, but their parents may not know about the program,” she said. “That’s a barrier we’ve been trying to help people overcome by just making sure that the information is out there so that families know.”

But even when families are aware, Randall said there are other logistical barriers that make getting the money tough for families in the North. RESPs must be set up in person at a financial institution, which can be difficult in the 27 NWT communities that don’t have banks.

“With so many of our communities not having local bank branches, that’s a big barrier, so people can really only set this up when they’re in Yellowknife or in one of the regional centres,” Randall said.

Additionally, in order to set up an RESP, both the child and parent need to have a Social Insurance Number, which requires a birth certificate.

“In communities where there may not be a Service Canada office, there might be a delay or an issue in getting the Social Insurance Numbers,” Randall said.

The goal of the fund is to ensure educational outcomes for children are improved across Canada through early planning and savings for post-secondary. Recent studies show that only 45 per cent of high school students from low income families with no savings enroll in postsecondary, and only seven per cent of those graduate. By contrast, 72 per cent of students with even some savings enroll and 33 per cent graduate.

Other partners in the initiative include non-profit organizations like SmartSAVER and the Martin Aboriginal Education Initiative, as well as banks like BMO, Meridian, RBC Royal Bank, Scotiabank, TD and Vancity.

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