Liberal government signals 'dramatic change' in funding relationship with First Nations

Canada's newly minted Indigenous Services Minister says new funding agreements with First Nations will signal a dramatic change in the relationship between Indigenous people and Ottawa.

Minister says some First Nations will qualify for 10-year funding grants with minimal government oversight

Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott is proposing a new 10-year granting program for First Nations that would require little reporting requirements. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Canada's newly minted Indigenous services minister says new funding agreements with First Nations will signal a "dramatic change" in the relationship between Indigenous people and Ottawa. 

The new transfer-style agreements being proposed by Minister Jane Phillpott, alongside the Assembly of First Nations, could mean some First Nations could get 10-year funding from the government for everything from housing to education to clean-water initiatives. 

Gone would be some of the rigorous reporting requirements often attached to that cash.

'Respectful nation-to-nation relationship'

Philpott says people who want more government-mandated reporting from First Nations are missing the meaning of a nation-to-nation relationship. 

"We want to enter into a new respectful nation-to-nation relationship based on transfers and allowing nations to report directly to their citizens," Philpott said in an interview Friday. 

We want to enter into a new respectful nation-to-nation relationship based on transfers and allowing nations to report directly to their citizens.- Indigenous Services Minister Jane Phillpott

She says the new system would replace an old, sometimes cumbersome and often disrespectful funding arrangement. 

"What happens right now in many communities is they get funding from a whole range of federal departments for various programs in their community — and almost all that funding is on a year-to-year basis," Philpott said.

That's something Chief Bobby Cameron from the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations F(FSIN) supports.

"The bureaucrats are stalling so many things, from health to education to justice. The list goes on and on," Cameron said. 

Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) Chief Bobby Cameron says FSIN agrees that First Nations must be consulted about federal transfer payment allocations. (CBC News)

Move met with cautious optimism, criticism 

While the move to more longer-term funding is being applauded by First Nations in Saskatchewan, the proposed change does have its critics. 

"We believe they are starting at the wrong spot. All good governance is based on accountability and transparency and that's true on First Nations," said Todd MacKay, Prairie director with the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. 

The Canadian Taxpayers Federation strongly supported the First Nations Financial Transparency Act. 

MacKay says getting rid of red tape is never a bad thing, but the fact the government wants to loosen reporting requirements is not sitting well. 

But Philpott says the move is not about making First Nations more accountable to government bureaucrats; rather, it's aimed at making sure First Nations bands are accountable to their members.

Third-party accreditation

She said all the First Nations who would qualify for the multi-year transfers would be accredited by something called the First Nations Financial Management Board, a third-party body that gives the green light to First Nations whose finances are in order. 

Once the First Nations get approval from that board, they would receive transfers similar to way funds are transferred to the provinces, Philpott said.

"It's a question of who that accountability is to. And First Nations communities are accountable to their own citizens, the people who elect them, the people who put them in place — and they should therefore be reporting largely to their own citizens," she said.

The exact proposal has yet to be set in stone. In Saskatchewan, there were concerns from Cameron that there wasn't enough consultation.

But Philpott said it was not a top-down approach. The details of the plan will be unveiled in the coming months and the government believes 100 First Nations could receive the 10-year grants as soon as April 2019.