Criticism from northeast as Federal budget focuses on Indigenous funding, economic development

Northeastern Ontario is set to benefit from some initiatives in the 2018 federal budget, but not everyone feels the north is getting its due.

James Bay hospital, Sudbury Neutrino Observatory get specific mention in budget

Ontario Regional Chief Isadore Day. (CBC)

Some of the billions of dollars in government money laid out in the 2018 federal budget will be flowing to northeastern Ontario, but not everyone feels the north is getting its due.

Funding for Indigenous issues amounts to $4.1 billion in new spending for First Nation, Métis and Inuit peoples and communities.

Ontario Regional Chief Isadore Day said he'd like to see more spent on actual infrastructure in First Nation communities, like clean water and housing.

Instead, Day said, the money is tied up in bureaucracy such as the dissolution of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC), for the creation of two new departments to deal with indigenous matters. He added the urgent needs of people in the communities are getting lost in the shuffle.

"The actual bread and butter issues on the ground and in the community like housing for example, and in this budget we're only seeing $600 million as a national investment," Day said.

"This clearly is not meeting the mark at all."

Mushkegowuk Council Grand Chief Jonathan Solomon says $600 million means less than $1 million per First Nation in Canada, and that the seven communities in his region alone need $320 million in housing infrastructure.

"The numbers don't reflect the need," he said.

Serpent River First Nation Chief Elaine Johnston says she's happy to see investments in child welfare and health care, but says proper housing should come first.

"If you don't have housing you can't meet the needs of children who are in care, can't meet the issues of health," she said.

Serpent River First Nation Chief Elaine Johnston. (Bryan Hendry/Supplied)

Funding for new hospital on James Bay coast

One specific budget commitment is funding for a new hospital and ambulance services on the James Bay Coast.

The federal government is committing funds, as part of a $235 million national Indigenous health system fund, to the Weeneebayko Area Health Integration Framework Agreement which will see the province and the Mushkegowuk government work together to set up a locally run health system on the James Bay.

The Sudbury Neutrino Observatory is also mentioned as one of the projects supported by the Canada Foundation for Innovation, which is receiving $763 million over the next five years.

Timmins-James Bay NDP MP Charlie Angus said it's good to see these nods to the north, but overall he calls the budget "a mixed bag."

Angus was pleased to see the government complying with the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal directive to increase funding for First Nations child welfare system.

Timmins-James Bay MP Charlie Angus (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

"The government hit the right mark, again, on agreeing that they have to legally meet the child welfare obligations," said Angus.

"So I will give them absolute 100 per cent marks on that...But on the overall Indigenous file I think it is very much status quo, which isn't good enough."

Angus is also concerned about regional economic development and the future of FedNor. He fears the Liberal government seems to be focusing on larger projects.

"In the north we need FedNor to be doing economic development in the smaller communities, as well as the larger ones, reaching right across our region. So I'm very concerned about the long term direction of the government for regional economic development in northern Ontario. And this has certainly raised a number of flags," Angus said.

The budget does include a $28 million boost for FedNor over the next five years, with $6 million to support grants for female entrepreneurs. 

Northern Ontario not at top of list

A political science professor at Nipissing University in North Bay said his analysis turns up some funding for FedNor.

David Tabachnick said it had a wide application among programs.

"About 28 million dollars, and this is kind of broken down in a variety of ways. It speaks of a manufacturing initiative, youth internships and a program for business growth and competitiveness." he said.

As for how big a piece of the budget pie will be spent in the northeast, Tabachnick said there may be slightly more for the region than in the past under this government.

"But northern Ontario is not at the top of their list of things to do."

With files from Kate Rutherford and Angela Gemmill