The sum of $1.4 billion is no doubt a hefty chunk of change. According to the Federal Ministry of Finance website, Canada already “invests’ over $10 billion annually on Aboriginal priorities in addition to the new funding announced in the 2009 budget.
With the entire world in financial turmoil following the U.S. recession, the Conservative government’s new budget has been geared towards jump starting the Canadian economy. The stimulus package will see $30 billion in support to the Canadian economy this year.
Breaking down the $1.4 billion, according to the Department of Finance Canada, $200 million has been earmarked to support Aboriginal skills and training; $400 million will go to on-reserve housing and related issues; $514 million has been set aside for on-reserve infrastructure needs, such as school construction, access to safe drinking water and the remediation and replacement of crucial health and policing infrastructure; and $325 million will be used to continue practical partnership approaches with Aboriginal organizations, provincial and territorial governments on delivery of First Nations and Inuit health programs and child and family services.
On top of that, Canada has also announced that an additional $250 million investment will be made to benefit “all Canadians living in the North, including Aboriginal Canadians.” This plan will include $200 million over a two-year period devoted to the construction of new housing and supporting home renovations.
The other $50 million is earmarked to go to economic development in the North, a new Regional Economic Development Agency and a renewed Strategic Initiative for Northern Economic Development over a two-year period.
The $30 billion stimulus package almost didn’t pass through parliament as it could not garner the support of the New Democratic Party and the Bloc Québécois, and the Liberal Party has seen party infighting since new Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff backed it.
In late November 2008, the Stephen Harper government was almost toppled when it suggested that Canada stop funding its political parties within the 2009 budget.
Though many political and even Aboriginal leaders have applauded the hard times stimulus package, at the same time, others are questioning what this money is actually going to do for urban and on-reserve First Nations individuals.
According to Jean Crowder, the NDP’s Indian and Northern Affairs Canada critic, though the infrastructure dollars are certainly welcomed, she sees a few “caveats” around it.
“It is not clear at this point in time how the money will roll out or if there will be a requirement to find any additional funding because, for example, now when they look at building houses on reserves, they don’t fund the full cost,” said Crowder.
At that, Crowder said there was no way to tell at this point if the housing itself would be market housing or social housing. Though $300 million was announced in 2008 for market housing, Crowder said that she could not get any details from INAC on how many houses were actually built.
“I can tell you that most reserves could not access market housing because either the high unemployment rates meant that they couldn’t borrow money with any kind of guarantee to build a market house,” said Crowder.
Beyond that, Crowder felt frustrated by the fact that there was no clear plan for the housing funds. To date there are still no details available on which regions could get the housing funds or whether there was going to be any kind of criteria to determine where it was most urgently needed.
She also has similar feelings about the on-reserve infrastructure funding. Though it has been promised, there is no information available as to whether the government will flat out provide the funding or if band councils will have to come up with funding that the feds will match.
Through INAC this federal budget is supposed to include $200 million to build 10 new schools on reserves which also had Crowder puzzled in that she wasn’t certain if this was a re-announcement or not. Last year INAC had the construction of nine new reserve schools listed on its budget but Crowder said that her party has no way of knowing if those schools were actually built or if INAC is re-announcing those same schools plus an additional one.
Crowder explained however that because INAC is constantly changing its reporting mechanisms it has become practically impossible to track how the department spends its funding or what capital projects actually happen.
“I don’t have any confidence that they are actually going to spend the money that they are putting into the budget; we have seen that in the past,” said Crowder.
While the Tory budget may sound good, in Crowder’s mind the announcements were too good to be true because there was not a firm enough commitment about how the money would be rolled out. For as much as she sounded positive about the fact that no doubt the funding would help some Aboriginals, without a clear and present plan to implement the spending Crowder fears that it could be a “nightmare” for some communities to access this funding.
“This budget doesn’t come anywhere near addressing the Kelowna Accord commitments,” said Crowder. As far as she is concerned, funding for reserves is still dramatically less that what the general population experiences and this under-funding only seeks to see Natives leave their traditional lands for urban centres.
The NDP will be posing formal questions to the government on the implementation plans for the funding as soon as they have had sufficient time to analyze the 300-plus-page funding report. However, Crowder said that the Conservatives can take up to 45 days to respond to questions.
Though the Tories said that the 2009 budget was geared at not only trying to save the Canadian economy but also protecting society’s most vulnerable, the government seemingly forgot to mention one of Canada’s most vulnerable populations – Aboriginal women.
In the weeks leading up to the budget announcement the federal government held meetings with provincial premiers and Aboriginal leaders to get their take on what was needed for their respective groups. Native Women’s Association of Canada President Beverley Jacobs attended one of these meetings to tell the feds what they could do to really help Canada’s Indigenous women.
According to Jacobs, the government had made it clear that the talks would focus on infrastructure and skills and training so the NWAC made a presentation on behalf of Aboriginal women within those parameters. Jacobs said that she spoke about the needs for both on- and off-reserve housing, shelters and transitional homes.
Jacobs also spoke of the need for more funding for education on reserves, skills and training that are suitable for single Aboriginal mothers, funding for child and family services as well as other issues when she spoke to the Prime Minister directly in her presentation on behalf of NWAC. Unfortunately, she feels that the budget has not come out with anything specific for Aboriginal women.
“I had very high expectations because of the talk,” said Jacobs. Not only does Jacobs feel that Harper’s budget did not take her presentation into account, after she presented it she said she was the only Aboriginal leader that he did not personally respond to.
“I was thinking that maybe they had listened this time,” said Jacobs of Harper and his cabinet but between the vagueness in what is offered and no mention of Aboriginal women, clearly that was not the case. At that, Jacobs said she feels this budget did not take any of NWAC’s presentation into account as there was no mention of education or skills and training programs geared specifically toward the needs of Aboriginal women, such as entrepreneurial programs. Infrastructure for shelters and other support systems for Aboriginal women and the needs of urban Aboriginals were other issues that Jacobs felt should have been addressed in this budget but were not.
Ellen Gabriel, president of the Quebec Native Women, feels similarly about the federal budget falling flat for Aboriginal women.
“The budget is a reflection of the Canadian government not fulfilling its fiduciary obligations. Never mind its responsibilities but its obligations,” said Gabriel.
Though the infrastructure funds have been lauded by the Assembly of First Nations and other Aboriginal groups for what it will do for some communities in terms of employment, particularly in construction, Gabriel isn’t thrilled by it.
“I think if we see the investments that the government is making in employment, they are predominantly male kinds of activities,” said Gabriel.
Though she did not have high expectations, what Gabriel was looking for with the new budget was a more holistic approach, meaning employment in environmentally sustainable fields instead of the oil and gas industry.
In promoting employment within fields that are detrimental to the environment, she said that this budget will not do anything to improve the health of her people.
Gabriel was also extremely disappointed that the budget did nothing to address the recommendations made to Canada by the United Nations in regards to its treatment of Aboriginal women and its disregard for human rights in the case of Aboriginals.
“There are a lot of social issues going on and this is not taken into account in the budget. It’s all about saving the stock market and saving the rich people and making sure once again that they benefit. That is the shortcoming of it, at least from the Aboriginal perspective,” said Gabriel.