Assembly of First Nations head Phil Fontaine was harshly criticized for his first budget submission to the federal government since regaining his position of National Chief last summer (see the December 12, 2003 issue). In particular, Cree Grand Council spokesman Brian Craik said Fontaine was trying to position the AFN as a financial middleman between Ottawa and First Nations across Canada. Craik and others also said the submission’s figures did not reflect a real needs assessment for aboriginal communities. Here, Fontaine responds to those criticisms.

Nation: Because of the recent budget submission, some people are saying that the AFN wants to become a sort of central money dispersing unit, the middle-man between the feds and the Natives. Is that the plan?

Fontaine: First of all, the Pre-Budget Submission (PBS) that we brought forward to the Standing Committee on Finance was the fifth PBS that the AFN has submitted. It’s an open process; it’s open to anyone who wishes to appear before the Standing Committee. You submit your name and the Standing Committee Chair decides who will appear before the Standing Committee and we have been invited for the last five years.

We submitted a plan that calls for $1.7 billion to address pressing social conditions in our community. And if you remember, go back to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples Report (1996), RCAP calls for $2 billion in new funding a year for 20 years. So our budget submission of $1.7 billion is for new money. New money that would be in addition to the base that we have now, which is anywhere from $5-7 billion for Aboriginal people, specifically for First Nations, I would estimate that it’s in the

order of $5 billion. So it would be in addition to that and the money would be directed to First Nations Government.

AFN has no mandate to deal with this money specifically or directly, it’s not money that would go to AFN, it’s not money that would be directed by AFN, it’s not funding that AFN would allocate. One per cent of this $1.7 billion would be for AFN, which is about $ 16 million. Keep in mind that in 2000 the AFN lost $10.5 million in funding. AFN had to lay off 72 people and in fact 90 positions were affected by the reduction. So this is an attempt to rebuild the organization to full capacity, restore its credibility.

We have no interest, nor do we have the mandate to control this funding or any funding. Any suggestion that we are trying to take control of this funding or these funds, if we are successful in accessing them, is completely off.

Nation: How did the AFN come up with the housing figures?

Fontaine: We studied the Auditor General’s report. And the Auditor General’s report that talks about the housing crisis used the figure of 8,500 homes. Keep in mind that this is an annual submission, the $1.7 billion of extra funding that we are calling for, has to do with one year of operations.

We were reminded by Quebec that our figures were too low, so we are going to go back and revisit the report and check out the figures very carefully.

Nation: What kind of relationship do you think you are going to have with the new Minister of Indian Affairs and is it going to be a little bit more peaceful?

Fontaine: The relationship that we hope to have is one that is cooperative and respectful and is consistent with all of the talks that we have heard recently about a “new” relationship. If the first meeting is any indication of the kind of relationship we are going to have in the future, I was satisfied, the discussions I thought were conciliatory. I got a sense from Minister Mitchell that he is willing to work with us. He talked about a collaborative approach about four times. So I’m anxious to see how this plays out and we’re pleased to hear that this major program review that is being undertaken has the Minister of Indian affairs, Mitchell, part of the committee, and I think that is a positive sign.

Nation: Do you think the move by Mr. Martin to have his own Secretariat within the PMO (Prime Ministers Office) exclusively dealing with Aboriginal Affairs and that Mr. Martin’s heading it, that that’s a sign that you are going to receive that kind of commitment from the government?

Fontaine: All that we have heard so far indicates to me that First Nation issues are a priority. Mr. Martin is going to chair the cabinet committee on Aboriginal Affairs, Minister Mitchell is the vice-chair, we have a special advisor in the Prime Ministers Office, there’s going to be an Aboriginal Secretariat in the Privy-Council office. All of those decisions indicate to me that Prime Minister Martin is serious about doing something constructive about Aboriginal issues and making a real difference, in fact, assuring that a radical transformation occurs between the First Nations people and government and society and in terms of social conditions, ensuring that there is a real improvement in that regard.