A provincial grant for Chief Matthews Elementary sparked a 20-minute debate between Premier Christy Clark and Opposition leader John Horgan in the B.C. legislature.
The grant covered a $150,000 engineering study that could lead to a long-awaited expansion of the Old Massett school—a $4-million project that would add a gym and enough classrooms that Chief Matthews can go up to Grade 7, rather than Grade 5.
If approved, Ottawa will provide $2 million for the classrooms, while Victoria covers the $2 million cost of the gym.
During the May 11 debate, Horgan questioned why Clark’s government chose to fund the Chief Matthews study, but has no plans to fund similar work at other First Nations schools in B.C., which is normally a federal role.
“She came with a cheque for $150,000 that has no policy foundation whatsoever,” said Horgan, adding that a 2013 report by the federal budget office shows there are 12 other First Nations schools in B.C. with higher needs for repairs.
“The question is—why these kids and not the kids at the dozen other schools that are in poor or worse condition than the school in Old Massett?”
In response, Clark said while it may be unusual for the province to fund something like the Chief Matthews study, such changes are long overdue.
“The same old way of doing things hasn’t served many First Nations people across this country very well for a very long time,” she said.
When Clark announced the engineering grant for Chief Matthews in late November, Old Massett Village Council was in the middle of an election campaign.
On Dec. 8, the Globe and Mail quoted Kimball Davidson, then a candidate for chief councillor, who said the premier’s visit and the grant amounted to “political interference.”
At the time, Davidson said the visit would help re-elect Chief Councillor Ken Rea, who led the council when it partnered on a $10-million wind-farm proposal with Broadwing Renewables Inc., a company owned by the premier’s brother, Bruce Clark.
That story prompted the NDP to file Freedom of Information requests for any provincial policy documents made in the lead-up to the November announcement at Chief Matthews.
The NDP request came back empty, but in the legislature Clark said B.C.’s education ministry could indeed show that it started working with Old Massett on the Chief Matthews gym proposal back in November 2014—a year before the announcement.
On May 20, the ministry released nearly 70 pages of briefing notes, emails and draft news releases about the plan.
Among other things, the records show B.C.’s education minister and the regional director of Aboriginal Affairs had a joint meeting with Old Massett council on Nov. 28, 2014. Two B.C. deputy ministers discussed it in January with representatives of Haida Gwaii’s public school district.
Ken Rea says all anyone needed to do to learn about those meetings or how the province got involved was to give him a phone call.
“We went through the front door on this,” said Rea, who added that he’s flabbergasted the NDP didn’t call him or other Old Massett councillors.
“They’re willing to throw a small First Nation under the bus for political gain, without ever talking to us,” he said.
“It just stinks.”
Asked if he thought Clark’s visit interfered with the Old Massett election, Rea said if anything, the visit cost him—no chief in his right mind would bring in a B.C. Liberal or Conservative leader for political help.
Voting records show the NDP won 116 votes in Old Massett in the last B.C. election. The Liberals got four.
“The whole reason this started wasn’t my idea, wasn’t the province’s idea—it certainly wasn’t Bruce Clark’s idea, he had no idea what was going on,” said Rea.
The idea, he said, came from Ottawa.
Eric Magnuson, then the regional director of Aboriginal Affairs, told Rea almost two years ago that Ottawa could provide up to $2 million for Chief Matthews, but only if the province matched it.
In 2006, a federal engineering study suggested a $6.5 million expansion for the school.
It nearly went ahead, but then Aboriginal Affairs moved from a regional to a nation-wide funding program for First Nations schools, bumping Old Massett from next-in-line to 60 on the priority list.
Rea said the village has been looking to expand Chief Matthews since 2000, partly because students have to make an awkward transition to Tahayghen Elementary in Masset for Grade 6, only to switch again to George M. Dawson Secondary for Grade 8 and high school.
But Rea said pressure to expand to Grade 7 has grown in recent years, ever since the public school district started to float the idea of combining Tahayghen and GMD—a cost-saving measure for an area with low student numbers that is unpopular with many parents.
Chief Matthews is open to all children in the north end, non-Haida included.
Funding for non-aboriginal students is covered by a provincial sharing agreement, and Rea said more are going to Chief Matthews now, and with good reason—it’s a great little school, run by local parents and teachers.
Rea said the only reason he invited Premier Christy Clark to visit last November was to make sure Ottawa would commit to the Chief Matthews expansion—whether or not he got re-elected.
“If she hadn’t come, they would still be waffling,” he said.
Jennifer Rice, the local North Coast MLA, said she would be happy to see Chief Matthews grow, and she and the NDP meant no disrespect to Old Massett council.
“I want all the kids to be successful, and to have healthy, safe schools to go to,” she said.
But Rice said it’s still strange that the premier visited Haida Gwaii last fall without calling anyone else—not the Council of the Haida Nation, nor the mayor of Masset—and announced funding that isn’t part of any larger program.
“Where’s the new policy?” she said.
“Because if this is a new policy, how do other band schools participate?”