Liberal budget includes billions in new spending for Aboriginal Peoples

OTTAWA – Billions in new spending will be directed toward aboriginal programs, including money for education, reserve water and child and family services, the Liberal government signalled in its budget released Tuesday.

The commitments are considered one of the central themes of the government’s first financial road map, with $8.4 billion earmarked over the next five years.

The spending also represents a significant increase over the investments that would have been made under the Kelowna Accord, Finance Minister Bill Morneau told a news conference before the budget was tabled in the House of Commons.

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde welcomed the budget, saying it marked a historic day.

“It is $8.4 billion over five years,” Bellegarde said in an interview. “It’s better than Kelowna. It’s way better than Kelowna. That’s why it is a significant first step.”

It is important to continue building on these investments and to work toward an overhauled fiscal relationship with the Crown, Bellegarde added.

The greatest portion of the money goes toward First Nations education — $2.6-billion over the next five years for primary and secondary schooling on reserves —though the government extended its window from the four-year period envisioned in its campaign platform.

The funding also ramps up significantly in later years, with $801 million set to flow in the last year of the five-year period, which falls outside the Liberal mandate.

Morneau defended the government’s approach to addressing the socio-economic conditions of indigenous peoples.

“One of the things I am most proud of in this budget is that we have decided to make very significant investments for indigenous people in this country,” he said.

The budget also includes nearly $2 billion for water and wastewater infrastructure over five years to end boil-water advisories, which Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has committed to doing.

Specifically, the budget proposes $141.7 million be spent over five years for the monitoring and testing of reserve drinking water and $1.8 billion over the same time period for facility operation and maintenance.

Cindy Blackstock, president of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, said she is disappointed by the government’s pledge on child and family services.

Blackstock, a social worker who fought and won a lengthy legal dispute with the federal government over funding for on-reserve child welfare services, said she was looking for $200-million this year to close the gap.

“My feeling is, that bar falls far below what is required to meet the order that is required by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal,” Blackstock said.

“It is $71 million in year one and then $99 million in year two. If you look at the overall figure it is over $600 million, but that’s back-ended.”

Much of the funding falls after the next election, Blackstock added, noting that puts the funding at risk and does not address the depths of inequity faced by kids on reserve.

“I think people need to look closely at what they’re actually spending and when,” she said. “The biggest investments on the First Nations file are after the next election.”

Outside the Commons Tuesday, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair also said the government’s investments fall short of what is required for child welfare.

“This is a question of charter rights,” Mulcair said. “First Nations kids are having their charter rights broken and there’s an obligation to invest in them.”

Craig Alexander, vice-president of economic affairs at the C.D. Howe Institute, said he is encouraged to see that the government is keen to invest in changing the outcomes for Aboriginal Peoples — an effort he views as an “economic imperative.”

“I think if the aboriginal community has better outcomes, the Canadian economy will have better outcomes,” he said.

Money is part of the solution but deep challenges remain, Alexander added.

“We need to understand that isn’t a silver bullet,” Alexander said. “There are some underlying barriers that actually need to be addressed so that we get the positive outcomes.”

The budget also contains additional commitments, such as $40 million over two years for the inquiry on missing and murdered indigenous women.

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