What the Ontario budget means for an isolated Indigenous community

Among the millions to be spent on high speed rail and dental care, the Ontario budget does have some relevance for communities in the far northern reaches of the province.

Budget includes $4.5M for Indigenous housing, but is focused off reserve

People in Attawapiskat, like many First Nations communities, don't pay much attention to the Ontario budget or provincial politics in general as they are so closely tied to federal government services. (Erik White/CBC)

Like in most Indigenous communities, when you say "the government" in Attawapiskat, people think federal.

Business owner and band councillor Sylvia Koostachin-Metatawabin says that's a problem. She thinks First Nations ignore the government in Toronto, and focus too much on the one in Ottawa.

"Sometimes these Ontario laws affect us too, and some people beg to differ, but it always creeps up on the reserve," she says.

Koostachin-Metatawabin says her business' bottom line is hurt by the higher minimum wage and other labour regulations brought in by the province.

She would also like to see the provincial government working more closely with businesses on reserve, instead of always dealing with chiefs and councils.

"The local entrepreneurs and businesses have always been left out of the picture when it comes to dealing with economic development," she says. 
Louis Edwards is the deputy chief of Attawapiskat (Erik White/CBC)

The Ontario budget makes mention of an existing Indigenous economic development fund, as well as many investments in off reserve communities, such as $4.5 million in northern Ontario housing funding.

In Attawapiskat, deputy chief Louis Edwards says they need 300 more houses in the community.

But the First Nation needs land to build them on, and is in talks with the province to acquire crown land surrounding the community.

Edwards says he finds the whole thing puzzling since that land traditionally belonged to his people.

"If we need land we should just go and build houses. We don't need to ask the government for permission to have more land for us. I guess that's the process they have to go through to get the funding." 

Much like the focus on federal politics over provincial affairs, there are several Canadian flags flying over Attawapiskat, but Ontario flags are quite rare. (Erik White/CBC)

In the budget, the Ontario government also pledges to work with Indigenous communities to figure out how to better share the revenue from mining and forestry operations. 

There is also talk of forming a framework that would see First Nations governments take over social assistance systems.

Edwards says about 80 per cent of people in Attawapiskat live on monthly cheques from Ontario Works.

He says the first thing he'd do is bring in direct deposit for welfare.

"The people have it in their bank account already and they don't have to line up for long hours to cash their cheques," says Edwards, adding that people pay a fee to convert those cheques into cash.

But he'd also like to see the number on the cheques better reflect the cost of living in the far north.

About the Author

Erik White


Erik White is a CBC journalist based in Sudbury. He covers a wide range of stories about northern Ontario. Connect with him on Twitter @erikjwhite. Send story ideas to