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First Nations fumble

How the Tories dropped the ball on funding

BY Ellen Russell
Photography Courtesy Reuters: Andy Clark

Wouldn’t you be a trifle upset if your land was taken and you were forced into extreme economic dependency and cultural annihilation? Has Canada moved beyond this sort of colonial relationship with First Nations peoples? Sorry to break it to my fellow non-Aboriginal Canadians, but the answer is “no.”

Consider the painfully slow resolution of land claims issues. A recent Senate report cited an expert’s estimate that—at the rate we are proceeding—just clearing the current backlog of specific claims, related to treaty breaches, could take 90 years. I wonder if this glacial rate of progress is because the government knows it owes First Nations billions of dollars? Try this experiment for fun: Seize a few billion dollars of some corporations’ assets and see if you can drag your heels for decades (or centuries!) before paying it back. Meanwhile, First Nations people are living in appalling circumstances. About one in four First Nations children lives in poverty. More than 100 First Nations communities must boil their drinking water. Housing is totally inadequate.

First Nations are kept in this deplorable situation by a crazy funding situation. In 1996 the federal government capped core funding for First Nations. So while funding for education, income assistance and infrastructure is allowed to increase only two percent per year, the costs that First Nations incur grow by more than two percent per year. Just inflation alone would keep funding frozen in real terms. After factoring in the rate of population growth, the funding cap means that every year First Nations fall further behind.

It is unthinkable that municipal and provincial governments would put up with having their core funding frozen in real terms for over 10 years. This is a fiscal train wreck happening before our eyes, yet the “fiscal imbalance” between Ottawa and First Nations has been overlooked for years.

As funding grows gradually, while expenses grow rapidly, First Nations are forced to cut critical services on reserves. Predictably, we see ever more problems with water quality and health outcomes in communities.

This funding cap is institutionalizing apartheid-like conditions. The 2005 Kelowna Accord was a response to this mess: it would have devoted $5 billion over five years to improve education, housing, economic development, governance and health in First Nations.

But Stephen Harper rescinded this agreement. No surprise here—his political advisor and soulmate Tom Flanagan has been doing his best to undermine self-government for Aboriginal peoples for years. Harper promised that the Conservatives would produce a better deal for First Nations. No such luck. Two federal budgets have come and gone and the Harper government has provided First Nations with almost nothing that is a tangible improvement over the status quo.

Instead, the Conservative government mounted a public relations campaign. “Money is really not the problem,” claimed Jim Prentice, minister of Indian affairs. To make it seem as though they were doing something meaningful, Conservatives started tossing out big numbers. Assertions were made that Aboriginal people were getting $9 or $10 billion a year in funding from the feds. Since that sounds like a lot of money, Canadians were supposed to conclude that the Kelowna Accord wasn’t really necessary. Ottawa is already more than generous to First Nations. You can just hear the racist subtext: If there is poverty on reserves, it must be those corrupt and wasteful First Nations governments that are squandering this ample funding.

Do First Nations get $10 billion from Ottawa? In your dreams. In fact, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada reckons that First Nations really get more like $6.4 billion. By its own admission, INAC recognizes that this is not enough.

With the fiscal squeeze tightening, First Nations are being pushed into a corner. Thanks to recent protests, we may see the government take some action. But let’s make sure it is not just public relations: Ottawa needs to pony up some serious money. But the longer-term systemic fix is to get rid of the colonial legacy that continues to haunt fiscal relations between Ottawa and First Nations. For starters, we might recognize that all Canadians are constitutionally guaranteed comparable services —that is why we have equalization. It should be likewise for First Nations.


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