By Fran Yanor / Legislative Reporter

Two First Nation chiefs have requested a forensic audit of 20-years worth of funding for Indigenous students in the Prince George School District.

“Looking at how their system worked, we were following the dollars and some things just didn’t seem to make sense,” said Lheidli T’enneh Nation Chief Clay Pountney. “McLeod Lake said maybe we should look at a forensic audit, and we said, we support you in that, we think that’d be a good idea.”

“We don’t know if a lot of these funds are actually reaching our First Nations kids within the school district,” saidLheidli T’enneh Nation Chief Clay Pountney (pictured here), whose nation has joined with Mcleod Lake Indian Band in requesting a forensic audit of funding for Indigenous students in the Prince George School District. / Photo courtesy Lheidli T’enneh Nation.

On Jan. 15, McLeod Lake Indian Band and Lheidli T’enneh Nation joined together to request a forensic audit of all targeted Indigenous education and Local Education Agreement (LEA) funding dispersed by SD57.

According to a letter from the chiefs to School Board Chair Trent Derrick, dated Jan. 15, the request for a forensic audit followed an earlier email inquiry by McLeod Lake Chief Harley Chingee in October. In the letter, the chiefs said Chingee had previously asked for details about how tuition dollars were spent. Despite engaging with district officials, the band said it was unable to get the information it sought.

“Basically we haven’t gotten a full answer; there’s no accountability,” said McLeod Lake Deputy Mayor Jayde Duranleau.

In January, Chingee escalated his information inquiry to a request for a forensic audit and Pountney joined the effort.

“This forensic audit will show in detail where the dollars have been spent since 2000. All parties will then be able to clearly see where things need to improve or change,” stated the letter signed by both chiefs.

In response, the school district issued a statement indicating the SD57 annual financial statements are already audited prior to submitting them for Ministry of Education approval. As well, the statement said, the district submits additional financial reports to the Ministry, specifically related to targeted Indigenous funding.

“The district is working to determine the scope and nature of the request as well as to establish who will cover the cost of this potentially expensive endeavor,” the SD57 statement said.

Since forensic audits are usually conducted to look for illegal activity and provide detail that will hold up in court, they require a higher level of investigation than a typical financial audit which ensures and attests to the accuracy of an organization’s financial statements. Depending on the situation, a forensic audit can cost tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Chingee and Pountney have proposed the cost be borne by the Ministry or the First Nations Steering Committee (FNESC). The FNESC is a policy and advocacy group that works on behalf of First Nations.

In an emailed response on the topic, a FNESC spokesperson said, the organization supports learners “but is not involved in matters between individual First Nations and school districts.”

Under scrutiny by the chiefs is the targeted Indigenous funding, which is allocated annually and available to all school districts based on the number of self-declared, enrolled Indigenous students within each jurisdiction. In the Prince George district, Indigenous students make up about 30 per cent of the total 13,000 or so student population.

About 70 of those students self-identified as Lheidli members, estimated Pountney. A McLeod Lake representative was unsure how many of their students attended SD57 schools. Takla Lake First Nation, another key local Indigenous community, has nearly 30 students attending SD57. Takla students must leave their remote community to attend high school in Prince George or Vanderhoof.

In total, Indigenous students from more than 70 distinct communities attend school in the Prince George district, said board chair Derrick. The district operates on Lheidli and McLeod Lake territories.

Generally speaking, targeted Indigenous education funding requires collaboration between boards of education and local Indigenous communities, and is intended to cover the development and delivery of Indigenous education programs and services that integrate academic achievement and Indigenous culture or language, or both, according to SD57 board documents dated Nov. 24. The district’s Indigenous Education department delivers services and curriculum to students across SD57.

Outcomes from targeted funding must be documented, ideally through a collaborative partnership between the school district, local Indigenous communities and the Ministry that involves ‘shared decision-making’ and ‘setting specific goals’ to meet educational needs of Indigenous learners, according to the Ministry’s definition of Enhancement Agreements.

The McLeod and Lheidli chiefs have also requested a forensic audit of all dollars dispersed through Local Education Agreements (LEA).

Both Lheidli and McLeod Lake have held LEAs from 2017 and 2018 respectively, and Takla is in the midst of negotiating its agreement.

An LEA is an agreement between a nation and a school district to purchase education services for its on-reserve students using federal government funding from Indigenous Services Canada. The nation pays the school district, per enrolled student, at a rate set by the Ministry of Education. The rate per student under a LEA is similar to the rate the Ministry funds the district for non-Indigenous students. The LEA funding is included in the district’s annual budget and used in the same way as the funding from the Ministry.
LEAs are intended to improve accountability and promote effective working relationships to better support Indigenous learners, according to the First Nations Education Steering Committee.

“We don’t know if a lot of these funds are actually reaching our First Nations kids within the school district,” said Pountney. “So we just want to get a transparent look at this whole piece.”

Fran Yanor / Local Journalism Initiative / [email protected]