Cut out 'middlemen' and fund First Nations in N.W.T. directly, says Dene Nation chief

The national chief of the Dene Nation is calling on Ottawa to send funding for N.W.T. First Nations communities directly to band councils instead of funneling it through the territorial government.

Chief Bill Erasmus made his pitch to Parliament's finance committee during budget consultations in Yellowknife

Bill Erasmus, the Chief of the Dene Nation, took his call for First Nations in the Northwest Territories to be funded by Ottawa to Parliament's finance committee when it met in Yellowknife. (Alex Brockman/CBC)

The national chief of the Dene Nation wants Ottawa to fund First Nations communities in the Northwest Territories directly instead of funneling money through the territorial government.

Chief Bill Erasmus delivered the message to Parliament's finance committee during its budget consultation hearing in Yellowknife on Oct. 5.

"The territorial government has assumed control over programs and services," Erasmus said in an interview with CBC. He estimates most funding from the federal government for First Nations in the N.W.T. does not reach local community governments or band councils.   

"The money goes to the territorial government," he said. "From there it goes into the public purse and it's dispersed so that the whole population has access to our dollars."

The Assembly of First Nations and the federal government are re-examining funding for First Nations in Canada.

The two groups signed a memorandum of understanding in July 2016 to review the fiscal relationship between Ottawa and Indigenous governments.

Representatives for both groups formed a working group to examine a wide range of options for changes to the funding model. A final report is expected in December. 

Some changes are already happening as a result of this work, Erasmus said, pointing to a recent announcement from the Assembly of First Nations as an example: beginning in the next fiscal year, First Nations will be able to carry over surpluses from year-to-year.

"People are saying there are too many middlemen involved," he said. "It's money the Treasury Board provides and there's a whole number of departments in the way between the Treasury Board and ourselves."

'There's not much left for our community' 

Sahtu Grand Chief Wilfred McNeely Jr. says the current arrangement unfairly helps larger communities in the territory, since it's spent on a per capita basis. This hurts small communities like Fort Good Hope, population 516.

Wilfred McNeely Jr. says communities in the Sahtu region do not get their fair share when the territorial government distributes funding meant for First Nations communities. (CBC)
"By the time money — which is rightfully ours —  trickles down to us, there's not much left for our community," he said. "We have to fill out a bunch of forms to get it. My people say it's not working for them."

A direct-funding arrangement would mean the dozens of boarded-up homes in his community would be repaired and more people could own their homes, McNeely said.

"If we want to talk about self-government we're going to have to learn how to govern ourselves with our own money and make our own decisions," he said.

"The community needs to decide who gets what and how." 

Liberal MP for Northwest Territories Michael McLeod supports the call to fund First Nations in the Northwest Territories directly. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)
Michael McLeod, the MP for the Northwest Territories, sits on the finance committee and supports Erasmus's proposal. He said it's time Indigenous communities in the territory control their own finances.

"If we're going to support the whole notion of Indigenous government, we have to let them govern and we have to give them the tools to govern," he said. "They're more than ready."