|NATIONAL NEWS - February 2009
Assembly of First Nations National Chief Phil Fontaine stated that the federal budget, released January 27th, includes some positive measures for First Nations but needs to do much more to strengthen First Nations economies which, in turn, benefits all Canadians.
“[This] federal budget provides a fair and helpful response in terms of First Nations infrastructure because we need to build houses and schools,” National Chief Fontaine said. “But we also need to build First Nations skills and First Nations economies. This is where the budget falls far short. Without those investments, First Nations will fall further behind and be forever in need of fiscal stimulus. Building schools is not an end in itself. We want our students to graduate from those schools. We want our students to have the opportunities to fully participate in the economy and society.”
The National Chief stated that First Nations want to work with government on a comprehensive plan that lifts First Nations out of poverty and begins to level the playing field for First Nations. In the weeks leading up to the budget, the AFN set out a practical and reasonable First Nations economic stimulus plan that targeted investments in First Nations infrastructure, education and skills and a repayable loan fund for First Nations economic development and partnerships. The proposal received wide support at the January 15 meeting between Aboriginal leaders and First Ministers.
“The infrastructure investments are welcome and necessary, as are the investments in health and child and family services. We also need to be assured that resources targeted for northern housing will be available for First Nations in those regions,” the National Chief said. “We are disappointed, however, that there is no response to our calls for investments in education and the repayable loan fund. Investments in education would get more of our people working and help eliminate poverty. As well, our governments should have access to credit to spark their economies and develop partnerships with the private sector. Our request for the loan fund amounts to 0.5 percent of the $200 billion that this budget puts into the credit system. We believe our request was reasonable and we will continue to pursue it because it will benefit both First Nations and Canada.”
The National Chief noted that the AFN will continue to advocate with the political parties and all Canadians for a more comprehensive response to the First Nations economic stimulus package, and will continue to press for a long-term plan that addresses systemic problems that impede progress.
“We will be working with all parties and all Canadians to obtain the adjustments needed to make this an effective budget for First Nations and Canada,” the National Chief stated. “This is not a partisan issue. This is a Canadian issue.”
This federal budget includes welcome and overdue measures that, if implemented, could allow First Nations to at least start addressing historic issues that have left them among Canada's most disadvantaged, BC Regional Chief A-in-chut (Shawn Atleo) said.
“There is positive news, but at the same time the budget falls dramatically short of the commitment and funding needed to ensure Canada’s First Nations share fully in the economic recovery, and we can only pray that this is but a first step,” said the Regional Chief.
Initial indications are that $1.4 billion is being specifically targeted to Aboriginal Canadians. In addition it is hoped that First Nations will also be able to access the $1 billion community investment fund for communities, such as the 203 First Nations in BC devastated by the mountain pine beetle crisis.
“The government deserves some credit for listening and trying to address some of our concerns by directing significant funding to address them,” Chief Atleo said, “But the reality is First Nations have never benefitted from previous times of prosperity and we have so much further to go to catch up.”
“The budget measures are a good down payment, and I hope, indicate a desire to build on the spirit of last year's Residential School Apology, but the truth is they barely scratch the surface of what is needed,” the Regional Chief said.
It is also unclear as to how First Nations will be able to access funding or what the decision-making criteria will be. ‘First Nations must be fully involved in setting the criteria and the decision process.” said Chief Atleo.
It is also unclear how much of the funding is actually new money, as opposed to redirected former commitments.
For example, the new two-year $1 billion community investment fund now includes unspecified money for communities affected by the mountain pine beetle disaster, which appears to mean the government's previous promise of $100 million a year for 10 years to address the MPB in BC has now been swallowed up by this new program.
“The devil is in the details, and we have reason to be cautious as this budget appears to have abandoned previous promises that First Nations had been counting on,” Chief Atleo said.
There is a huge void in this Budget announcement by the Conservative government. The financial package offered no specifics on addressing the needs of Canada’s most marginalized members of society, Aboriginal women.
The Native Women's Association of Canada President Beverley Jacobs is disappointed that Aboriginal women were not specifically mentioned in the $1.5 billion allocated to Aboriginal Peoples.
President Jacobs says, “While any financial boost for Aboriginal peoples is welcomed news, we needed to hear Aboriginal women specifically mentioned as part of the stimulus plan. Instead, we heard only general comment about Aboriginal issues such as social housing on reserves, Aboriginal skills and training, child and family services.”
President Jacobs adds, “We have to assume that this budget applies to Aboriginal women however, we’re faced with the enormous task of negotiating with the various government departments to ensure Aboriginal women's challenges are not forgotten. Unfortunately, we have a lot of work to do in a short period of time.”
Still, NWAC is prepared to take the budget and work hard on behalf of Aboriginal women and their families to secure adequate funding in key areas such as child care, housing and shelters on and off reserve, skills training and employment.
The Native Women's Association of Canada is an aggregate of 13 Native women's organizations and is the national voice of Aboriginal women in Canada.
The federal budget certainly wasn't reflective of First Nations expectations, nor close to what was offered by the First Ministers at Kelowna, but the budget does need to address overall economic uncertainty according to Grand Council Chief John Beaucage. He also called the government’s investment in on-reserve social housing “a good start”.
An economist by education, Grand Council Chief Beaucage understands the need to balance economic stability with enhancement to First Nations communities.
“A strong Canadian economy is necessary to ensure continued investment in First Nations governments and economies,” said Grand Council Chief Beaucage. “Our goal is to build self-sustainable First Nations economies as a means of eliminating poverty.”
Grand Council Chief was disappointed that the Government did not include a more significant economic stimulus package for First Nations in the budget. The Assembly of First Nations and the Chiefs of Ontario had put forward proposals for $3 billion in additional spending for First Nations, mainly through investments in infrastructure, housing and economic development.
However, as the AFN national portfolio holder for housing, Beaucage was pleased to see a commitment of $400 million toward on-reserve social housing.
“We cannot discount the tremendous need for social housing on-reserve. In reality, the majority of our citizens are unable to afford their own homes and have difficulty finding affordable housing,” said Beaucage. As far as I’m concerned, this investment is a good start and needs further consideration in future budgets.”
Other First Nations components in the budget include: $305 million over two years has been ear-marked to improve health outcomes and $20 million over two years to improve child and family services on First Nations; $100 million over three years toward an Aboriginal Skills and Employment Partnership (ASEP) initiative, with a goal of creating 6,000 jobs; $75 million in a two-year Aboriginal Skills and Training Strategic Investment program: and $515 million toward “ready-to-go” community infrastructure projects, including school, water and community projects.
“I’m really pleased to see priority given to First Nations skills development,” said Beaucage. “Investment in our youth and potential workforce will go a long way in ensuring a bright future of First Nations and Canada’s economy.”
Grand Council Chief Beaucage has advice for Parliamentarians following the budget the need for political stability during a recession and that the deficit may be compounded in future budgets.
“Parliament must be able to work together, with First Nations and all Canadians, and move toward positive financial growth,” said Beaucage. “This goal shouldn’t be compromised through further political crisis or through a policy of permanent deficit.”
The Anishinabek Nation established the Union of Ontario Indians as its political advocate and secretariat in 1949. The Union of Ontario Indians is the oldest political organization in Ontario and can trace its roots back to the Confederacy of Three Fires that have existed long before European contact.
The federal budget represents a missed opportunity by the Government of Canada to strengthen its relationship with First Nations, according to the Iroquois Caucus which represents seven Iroquois communities comprising a total combined membership of over 60,000.
Announced allocations in housing, water, health, and education fail to meet Canada's minimum obligations under international human rights instruments. Although some allocations may temporarily address emergency situations in selected First Nations communities, the budget fails to make the minimal structural changes necessary to immediately improve the lives of First Nation peoples. For example, the government of Canada failed to remove a two percent cap imposed in 1996 on all First Nation program and service expenditures for basic operating funds for areas such as First Nations schools.
Rather than continuing to provide stop gap funding to First Nations through social programming, the federal government fails to recognize and accommodate First Nations lobbying efforts for a strengthened commitment to revenue sharing on resource extraction activities on traditional First Nations lands. The federal budget also fails to accommodate Canada’s recent commitment to address a severely backlogged First Nation land claims process whereby claims valued under $150-million would be fast-tracked. The Iroquois Caucus lobbied against the Specific Claims Tribunal Act as it expected First Nations to surrender their interest in land for money and failed to outline a process for claims valued over $150 million. The budget fails to address either.
Canadians must remember that there are over 630 First Nation communities in Canada. When one hears announcements of $515-million to support urgent infrastructure projects on reserves, such as school construction, drinking water and policing that may sound like a lot of money. Spread that among over 630 communities, many which lack even the very basic infrastructure like roads and running water and the level of funds are clearly insufficient.
The Iroquois Caucus calls on the federal government to meet their fiduciary and legal obligations to consult with First Nations on assessing their real financial needs to bring their communities up to national standards in areas of skills and training, housing, infrastructure, post-secondary education and health.
Canada may be facing a recession, but First Nations have been living in a depression for years.
Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) Grand Chief Stan Beardy expressed cautious optimism that federal funding for infrastructure improvements will begin to address the growing crisis faced by NAN First Nation communities following the release of the budget by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty.
“We are encouraged by the Government of Canadas pledge to include First Nations in the recovery of the Canadian economy, and we hope that a good portion of the infrastructure funding will be directed to improving the quality of life in NAN First Nations,” said Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) Grand Chief Stan Beardy of budget's multi-billion-dollar economic stimulus package.
Critical issues facing NAN communities include the high cost of living, high rates of unemployment, low educational outcomes, poor policing services, a housing and infrastructure crisis and a lack of access to quality health care. Many people in NAN communities live in third world conditions, with unemployment soaring to around 85 per cent and the high cost of living causing never-before-seen levels of poverty and declining health.
Nishnawbe Aski Nation is a political territorial organization representing 49 First Nation communities within James Bay Treaty 9 and Treaty 5 territory - an area covering two thirds of the province of Ontario.
Thirty remote First Nation communities in northern Ontario will benefit from improved winter road networks, thanks to the Government of Canada.
Greg Rickford, Member of Parliament for Kenora, on behalf of the Honourable Chuck Strahl, Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development and Federal Interlocutor for Métis and Non Status Indians, have announced $3.7 million to improve the road network.
Our Government recognizes the importance of developing and maintaining winter roads for residents in remote communities across northern Ontario, said MP Rickford, on behalf of Minister Strahl. We want to improve the quality of life for these First Nations by ensuring that residents in remote communities have a reliable winter road network.
The winter road network, which spans 3,000 kilometers, is a vital transportation link to isolated communities. Annual federal government investments in winter roads are helping to provide an economical way to transport essential goods and services, helping to minimize the overall cost of living in the communities they connect, and reinforcing life lines of social interaction and mobility throughout the region. Since 2006-2007, INAC has invested approximately $5 million to improve winter roads. These investments have assisted remote First Nation communities in maintaining, expanding and realigning winter roads, providing a safer and more reliable network.
This investment is integral to the well-being of remote First Nations, who rely on the winter road network for commercial and personal activities, said Harvey Yesno, President-CEO for the Nishnawbe Aski Development Fund. Seasonal access to these First Nations via winter roads is critical to reducing the cost of living and the cost of doing business.
For 2008-2009, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) is providing an increase in the annual operations and maintenance budget to approximately $1.8 million from $875,000. This announcement of $3.7 million also includes a one-time contribution of more than $1.9 million. The Nishnawbe Aski Development Fund will administer the 2008-2009 funding for construction, operation and maintenance of the winter roads.
The Nishnawbe Aski Development Fund is a non-profit, independent, Aboriginal-owned and operated financial institution providing business and financial services to Aboriginal people living in remote, rural and urban communities across northern Ontario. The main office is located in Thunder Bay, Ontario and a branch office is also operated out of Timmins, Ontario.
The Honourable Chuck Strahl, Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development and Federal Interlocutor for Métis and Non-Status Indians and the Honourable Leona Aglukkaq, Minister of Health, announced upcoming engagement sessions on the development of a proposed legislative framework for drinking water and wastewater in First Nation communities to begin in February 2009.
“Our government knows that access to clean drinking water and wastewater systems is vital to the health and safety of every Canadian and we are continuing to take decisive action to improve water issues in First Nations communities,” said Minister Strahl. “Moving forward in partnership will bring us closer to making sure that people on reserve the same protection for drinking water and wastewater as those in similar communities off reserve.”
First Nation communities and regional First Nations organizations across the country, and provincial and territorial governments (except Nunavut, where there are no First Nations), will be invited to attend engagement sessions. Discussions during the sessions will focus on the scope and elements of a proposed federal legislative framework for drinking water and wastewater in First Nation communities, as well as the roles and responsibilities of the Government of Canada and First Nations.
"The Government of Canada is taking real action to help improve water and wastewater in First Nations communities,” said Minister Aglukkaq. “These sessions will provide an important opportunity for First Nations to participate in discussions on the development of a legislative framework. We look forward to working together with representatives from across the country towards this common goal.”
In 2006 the Government of Canada announced a Plan of Action for Drinking Water in First Nation Communities to take decisive action to improve access to safe, clean drinking water on reserves. Building on this progress, a two-year $330 million investment in a First Nations Water and Wastewater Action Plan, announced in 2008, introduced new measures for improving drinking water and wastewater in First Nation communities. Consulting with First Nation communities, First Nation organizations and provincial/territorial governments on the creation of a federal legislative framework for drinking water and wastewater on reserve was part of that commitment.
Those who wish to submit their views on the proposed legislative approach in writing can do so before April 17, 2009. Details on how to submit written submissions are available at www.ainc-inac.gc.ca/ai/mr/nr/j-a2009/ nr000000168-eng.asp
“By working together, we can have clean, safe water for every First Nation community” added Minister Strahl.