The Liberal government’s reform of Canada’s social safety net could hit Crees hard, says the Grand Council.
“The Cree economy is very dependent on the programs they’re talking about,” said Brian Craik, the Grand Council’s federal relations director. “Federal and provincial subsidies make up the vast majority of what Crees earn.”
The reform, announced by Ottawa last year, is intended to shave billions of dollars in government spending in areas like unemployment insurance, welfare, education, job training and health care. The government has held hearings into the reform across the country, but only a limited number of presentations have been allowed in each city and these are usually very short.
Aboriginal groups like the Assembly of First Nations, the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada and the Native Women’s Association of Canada have denounced the hearings for excluding First Nations input.
Craik said Crees have been told virtually Nothing about how the reform will affect them. “It’s just all speculation right now,” he said. “There haven’t been real consultations.”
Education funding is one of the biggest concerns. Although education is a provincial matter, Ottawa is considering making deep cuts to education-related transfer payments to the provinces.
That means tuition fees could rise and Quebec may try to pass some of the rising costs on to the Cree School Board.
But school board chairman Paul Gull said this would be a violation of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement. Under the agreement, Crees don’t have to pay for tuition fees. “We are avoiding the process because we feel we already have guarantees in the James Bay Agreement,” said Gull. “It is up to the Grand Council to protect these rights.”
Other major areas where Crees could see big spending cuts are housing, economic development and healthcare. In the housing file, one government proposal would see a 65-per-cent cutback in subsidised housing in Native communities.