Four Native students and two non-Natives in Victoria, B.C. went on hunger strike on Feb. 16 to show their opposition to the lack of federal funding for First Nations education.
“The government is going against its promise to give First Nations students the right to education,” says Gwen Bridge of the University of Victoria, on strike since day one.
The hunger strike ended in the first week of March when the federal budget was announced. The students went so far as to refuse eating solid foods, except for consuming tea, water, and coffee.
They were calling on the federal government to live up to its responsibility to fund aboriginal students and make a substantial increase in funding for the 1996/ 97 year.
Officials of the regional office of the Indian Affairs Department in B.C. spoke with the students, but only to find out how they found out about the government’s plans. According to a press release, the officials did not seem the slightest bit interested in their health or well-being.
Opponents of the funding cuts say they could force First Nations students in their last years of school to drop out.
Aboriginal students in B.C. already face a shortfall of $6.1-$7.5 million in their education funding from Ottawa, which has a constitutional responsibility to fund First Nations education.
With tuition fee increases planned for next year and a
freeze on new federal funds, 140 to 280 First Nations students will lose funding in B.C. alone.
Another protest against funding cuts in education and health care took place Feb. 16 on the sacred burial grounds of the Algonquin Nation, which is the Parliament Hill in Ottawa.
National Chief Ovide Mercredi gave an opening address. About 1,500 people of different nations from all across Canada rallied in support of the B.C. students and as one unified nation. The last of our rights are being threatened on paper, but not in our hearts!
Ovide Mercredi’s speech gave support to the protesters, but some who listened were disappointed because they perceived a lack of passion and belief in his words.
A youth attending the rally named Lee described the speech as “long and boring. I wasn’t really listening.”
But the crowd came to life when Ontario Vice-Chief Gordon Peters took the podium. “He brought a lot of feeling into his speech,” commented Lee. “He was determined to get the point across to the crowd. I listened intently to him because he struck me as a National Chief.”
“We have to start doing the things we talk about, not just talk.”
There indeed was a tremendous response from the people. You could feel the cries of all nations.
For our rights, our heritage and our health! Even if it was for a brief moment, it was unified.