Indigenous leaders encouraged by budget promises, but concerned about funding flow

While they welcomed the Morneau budget with satisfaction and optimism, Indigenous leaders are disappointed by the slow redistribution of funds in their communities.

First Nations, Inuit, Métis and Indigenous women's groups hope funds promised in 2017 budget flow quickly

AFN Chief Perry Bellegarde (left) said the new budget will translate to changes on reserves. Clem Chartier (right), president of the Métis National Council, had higher expectations for the latest budget. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

While Indigenous leaders are optimistic about the promises in Wednesday's federal budget, there is also concern that the funds will flow too slowly to their communities.

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde said he hopes the $3.4 billion in funding allocated to Indigenous people in Bill Morneau's 2017 budget will translate into changes on reserves.

And he said the funding would "help close the socio-economic gap" between First Nations and other Canadians.

"There are some investments in mental health, midwifery programs, transportation in and out of the North. There's a lot more analysis in the details but there is movement there as well," said Bellegarde.

2016 funds still not flowing

Chief Bobby Cameron, head of the Saskatchewan-based Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, said the amounts allocated were adequate, although additional funds would be welcome.

"Any investment is a big improvement … from the previous government because we weren't receiving anything," said  Cameron, who is also responsible for the AFN education file. 

"In fact, we were going backwards."

'Any investment is a big improvement," said Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations Chief Bobby Cameron. (Jason Warick/CBC)
But according to Cameron, some communities have still not received funding linked to the 2016 budget.

In that budget, the Trudeau government said it wanted to "turn the page and begin a new chapter in the relationship between Canada and Indigenous peoples" with a budget of $8.4 billion over five years for Indigenous initiatives.

But some are also worried about how the new money will be spent.

"We're telling [Ottawa], don't hire any more bureaucrats because you're taking away from our First Nations communities," said Cameron.

A nation-to-nation relationship

The government also provided $222 million over five years to improve the "nation-to-nation relationship" with the various Indigenous groups in the country.

For example, "permanent bilateral mechanisms" will be established at a cost of $14 million, including one to renew Ottawa's relationship with the Inuit and to "promote their prosperity," which is in keeping with the partnership agreement signed in February by Ottawa and Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami.

A new collaboration with the Métis is also underway, with the injection of $85 million over five years to "strengthen the governance capacity of the Métis National Council and its five provincial leadership members."

The president of the Métis National Council, Clem Chartier, said that funding is an "important step forward" for Métis self-determination.

However, he was disappointed no other funding was promised to provide essential services to the Métis.

Chartier said he had high expectations for the 2017 budget because his organization had been invited to attend its unveiling in the House of Commons. He believed that invitation was a sign of important investments, particularly in health.

"When [Ottawa] talks about partnerships with Indigenous people they talk about the delivery of better health services for First Nations and Inuit, but the Métis aren't in there." he said, referring to the $828 million in the budget for health and mental health.

"We were hoping with [the Daniels Decision] the government has no place to hide, they can't say, 'We don't have jurisdiction over you,'" Chartier said, referring to last year's landmark Supreme Court decision that ruled the federal government has the same responsibility to the Métis as it does to status Indians and Inuit.

Métis communities like La Loche in Saskatchewan have serious mental health needs, including suicide prevention and addressing substance abuse.

Chartier is confident that with a new relationship with the government, it will now be possible to move forward and advance priority issues.

He said that Minister of Health Jane Philpott phoned him after the budget was tabled to assure him the government "will be looking in the budget for areas where they can deal with the Métis Nation."

Budget too vague

Indigenous organizations have also lamented the lack of clarity in the Liberal budget.

Natan Obed, the president of the national advocacy organization Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, argues that the "Inuit-specific language needed to understand how our regions will be affected" is missing from the budget.

He says his organization will have to continue to look at the 322-page budget to understand what it means for Inuit.

ITK President Natan Obed has long lobbied for a more meaningful relationship with Ottawa. (Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami)
For example, the budget calls for $300 million to be injected over an 11-year period to improve housing in Canada's three territories. But it does not clearly state what funding will "flow directly to Inuit to build the homes we need in our regions," Obed said.

He said he was optimistic that through the new partnership signed in February, his organization would get the necessary explanations to "maximize the full potential for Inuit " in all the areas covered in the budget.

Women's Association excluded

The Native Women's Association of Canada is also trying to demystify the budget and see how it can be used to support the interests of Indigenous women.

In a statement, NWAC said it did not find "what portion of the budget, if any, will be applied to improving the safety of Indigenous women by improving their access to shelters and single parent housing."

The group also did not see a hoped-for significant increase in funding.

"Our exclusion from this document does not mean that the resources that Indigenous women need will not be allocated," the association's statement said. "We have to be optimistic that reconciliation is still possible."

But NWAC said it is "extremely gratified to see concrete steps being taken to address the safety of women" through funds allocated to help Canadian victims of spousal abuse, and hopeful for more input on health and mental health funding promised in the budget.

"We hope that the implementation of these improved services will include meaningful consultation with Indigenous women and will take into account intergenerational trauma, traditional cultural practices, and a holistic approach to overall health and healing."

Children's services

While the budget advocates "renewing its relationship with Indigenous people," there is no additional funding for the First Nations Child and Family Services Program.

Last year's budget provided $635 million over five years for this program.

But the Assembly of First Nations estimates that an additional $155 million is required this year so that Canada can comply with last year's ruling by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, which said the federal government has discriminated against Indigenous children by failing to provide them with the same level of social services as other Canadian children.

"The government has not chosen to accelerate funding for the protection of Indigenous children," said Cindy Blackstock, the executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society.

The AFN's Bellegarde said the tribunal's ruling is "a binding ruling" and that the lack of funding in the budget should be reviewed with the government.

The minister of finance has argued that it will take time to address this difficult issue.