Perry Bellegarde, AFN national chief, calls federal budget 'historic'
Over $3B earmarked in Trudeau government's 1st budget won't flow until after next election
The head of the country's largest First Nations group is calling Tuesday's federal budget "historic."
"What I see today is a break against the status quo," said Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde. "Once you start making those key investments now, it's good for Canada, it's good for this country, because those high social costs are going to start coming down."
But other indigenous leaders and advocates worry that the $8.4-billion commitment is spread too thin, with over $3 billion set to flow only after the next federal election.
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"When we look at the global figures, it's pretty encouraging," said Cindy Blackstock, head of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada.
"When you look at how those are distributed over fiscal years, less so."
Improving child welfare
In January, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruled that the federal government failed to provide First Nations children the same level of welfare services that exist elsewhere, contrary to the Canadian Human Rights Act.
This budget will see $634 million spent on improving child welfare, over five years.
"It falls short of what's required," said Blackstock. "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."
Blackstock said what on-reserve child welfare needed was an immediate $200-million injection, on top of a larger budget increase.
"We are committed to overhauling the system," said Minister of Indigenous and Northern Afffairs Carolyn Bennett.
"We're going to work with Dr. Blackstock and First Nations leadership to make sure we can get less children in foster care and have them growing up with a secure personal cultural identity."
But Blackstock, who already spent nine years fighting for the tribunal decision, said she's considering further legal action to force the federal government into addressing the inequity sooner.
First Nations education
Finance Minister Bill Morneau praised the government's commitment to First Nations education.
"It's good for the people who get the education, of course, it's good for the economy, and as Canadians we want to be proud of a country that gives all Canadians a real shot at success," Morneau said.
A closer look at the budget, however, reveals that of the $2.6 billion allocated for First Nations education, just over $1 billion won't be available until after the next election.
Still, Bennett sees her government's first budget — aimed at bringing about "transformational change" — as an improvement over the Kelowna Accord, a $5-billion deal that died with the defeat of the previous Liberal government in 2005.
"The money that's been announced [Tuesday] is very significant in terms of identifying the gap that is there," said Grand Chief Derek Nepinak, head of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs.
"But it's going to require more in the long term to be able to close that gap efficiently."
Sheila North Wilson, grand chief of the Manitoba Keewatinook Aski, tweeted that First Nation communities in northern Manitoba need $2 billion immediately just to fix a massive backlog of housing.
$8.4 Billion for Indigenous Ppl. What do you think? In <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/MKO?src=hash">#MKO</a> alone we need $2Billion dollar investments for housing. <a href="https://t.co/XoVzNUHlTm">pic.twitter.com/XoVzNUHlTm</a>—@shenorthwilson
Alvin Fiddler, grand Chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, called the budget commitments a good start, but still believes more is needed for communities to just catch up after years of underfunding.
$82M/year for 2 yrs won’t go far enough to address current need for health facilities in FN communities <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Budget2016?src=hash">#Budget2016</a>—@gcfiddler
His organization represents First Nations in northwestern Ontario, many of which have a youth suicide rate that is 50 times higher than anywhere else in the country.
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Mi'kmaq lawyer and academic Pam Palmater was also critical of the commitments made to indigenous health, calling it "woefully inadequate."
Federal budget doesn't come anywhere near actual FN needs, that's not including off-reserve needs or Inuit. Woefully under-delivered—@Pam_Palmater
While Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami president Natan Obed said the budget did not earmark any money for mental health or suicide prevention for Inuit, and he hoped to see more funding for infrastructure in the North.
Bennett vowed to make items in the budget more clear in the coming days.
"We want to make sure that the people in the North know that there is separate dollars for housing, that's northern housing, not only on-reserve housing and that there is a significant contribution to the issues facing the North," she said.
This is just one budget and we're not going to solve all of these problems in one year.- National Chief Perry Bellegarde
Bennett also reiterated what was stated in the budget document, that consultation would begin with indigenous groups in the coming year on establishing a new long-term fiscal relationship.
But Bellegarde still vowed to keep pushing until "discriminatory" funding levels end.
With files from Angela Johnston, Sima Sahar Zerehi