News that Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC) failed to spend $1-billion budgeted for First Nations services over the last five years didn’t catch Quebec’s Indigenous organizations by surprise. After all, barely more than two weeks before the news broke in early June, the 40-year-old organization Quebec Native Women had learned it was having its funding cut by $175,000, a blow that will likely force the organization to shut down.
But according to AANDC, no money has been lost.
According to AANDC spokesperson Valerie Hache, “97.2% of the alleged funding lapse for the five fiscal years mentioned in the internal memo was carried forward to future years. During this period, funding for essential services was not ‘held back.’”
When asked whether that funding was added to the budgets of years that followed creating a surplus, or whether the money replaced dollar-amounts in future budgets, AANDC Media Relations person Michelle Perron described the process of carrying budget balances forward as “reprofiling.”
“The reprofiling amounts, approved after Public Accounts, result primarily from initiatives such as specific claims,” she told the Nation by email. “For example, in fiscal year 2013-14 the department lapsed $502 million in Grants and Contributions, of which $497 million or 99% is attributable to funding for the Specific Claims Settlement Fund which was reprofiled to future years.”
Perron said the remaining 1% that had gone unspent amounted to “$31 million, or 0.1% of the department’s total grants and contributions budget over the last five years.”
However, MP Niki Ashton, the NDP Aboriginal Affairs critic, does not believe the AANDC is telling the truth.
“There’s such a thing as creative accounting, and I think this is definitely a case of that,” she told the Nation. “We’ve heard them make similar arguments. It’s untrue. And somehow they coast over the chronic underfunding that the auditor general, Indigenous organizations, and communities have pointed to.”
Ashton said she did not believe that the money had been simply moved forward and spent in other places when it was discovered in surplus.
“I am aware in the past of other departments that have seen funding left over by the end of the fiscal year and have reached out to work with organization to make things happen with that money,” she said. “I’ve never heard of such a significant amount of money being ‘lapsed,’ which is their favourite word for this. And it’s not just a significant amount, but an amount that is tied to a department that has as its mandate providing direct, life-or-death services for a segment of Canadians that need it most.”
Ashton noted the Special Claims fund, named by Perron as the key target for most of these funds, was recently cited in a damning report as being a dysfunctional process.
“We also know that the government has been notoriously slow in showing good faith when it comes to Specific Claims negotiations, land claims, entitlement issues more broadly,” Ashton said. “It’s pretty rich to hear them say that Special Claims is where funding has been going. Absolutely Specific Claims processes need to go forward and be resolved as soon as possible, but I don’t think they’re convincing anyone that that’s where the money has been redirected.”
Ashton argued that rather than simply being applied to other projects, the funds were likely used to help the Harper government balance the budget in an election year.
“It’s pretty clear, given the major gaps between non-Indigenous and Indigenous Canadians that any accounting this government is engaging in involves doing it on the backs of Indigenous communities in particular,” she said.
However the amount of the lapsed funding brought one issue to mind for Ashton – the amount Harper had pledged to use to boost First Nations education across Canada.
“When he was pushing the Education Act, the commitment was $1.9 billion,” she said. “It’s not lost on many that this is almost the amount of money that the prime minister himself recognized should be funneled into education – and that has not taken place. It’s an enormous symbolic amount.”
The Conservative government, Ashton argued, has demonstrated a history of disrespect toward Indigenous people and organizations. She cited the government’s unwillingness to launch an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and continued underfunding of education as examples.
“When you have $1 billion committed to funding Indigenous communities that goes unspent, that speaks volumes to how little respect they have for Indigenous communities, and how little they care about the very serious issues that Indigenous communities face,” she said. “There are 95 First Nations or Indigenous entities that the government is in some stage of legal challenge with in the courts. Clearly the government has some misplaced priorities. It is appalling that they’re making up excuses about a significant sum of money that is frankly owed to Indigenous communities, that was earmarked for them, and is badly needed.”