First Nations leaders meet Finance Minister Bill Morneau, talk budget issues

Top leaders from the Assembly of First Nations met Finance Minister Bill Morneau on Thursday for a pre-budget talk which both sides described as productive.

Pressure mounts on federal government to put promises into action in its first budget

Key leaders from the Assembly of First Nations are to meet Finance Minister Bill Morneau today. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Top leaders from the Assembly of First Nations met Finance Minister Bill Morneau on Thursday for a pre-budget talk which both sides described as productive.

The indigenous leaders laid out their main concerns and needs and said they could benefit from some of the infrastructure money the government has been promising.

The discussion came as the government tries to work out how to make good on a number of ambitious and uncosted campaign promises, such as lifting a two-per-cent cap on funding for reserve programs and services.

It followed a landmark ruling this week from the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, which rebuked the federal government for systemic underfunding of First Nations child welfare services.

The two sides were cautiously optimistic about their prospects after the talks.

"Our government respects and values input of the AFN and Canada's indigenous communities as we work towards the next budget," Morneau said in a statement.

Isadore Day, the Ontario regional chief for the AFN, said the face-to-face session was a good first step, but he stressed the need for action.

"This needs to become a national dialogue," he said.

"You've got a portion of Canadian society which are your treaty partners, First Nations people, off to the side and suffering in silence. And our people are dying every day."

As it looks ahead at the budget, the government should consider putting infrastructure dollars — a key plank of the Liberal election platform — into First Nations communities, Day added.

"Our chiefs are saying 'we don't want to be left out of that process'," he said.

"This cannot happen without our involvement, our benefit and us being partners at the table with respect to infrastructure development and improvements in the North."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has cited the need to reform the relationship with Aboriginal Peoples as a top priority — a sentiment reflected in mandate letters sent to each cabinet minister.

But his government faces a financial crunch, especially with oil prices sliding.

Morneau flagged the fiscal challenges during Thursday's meeting, Day said.

"The truth was placed on the table about the condition of the dollar and the Canadian economy," he said.

"He was more interested and inclined to want to listen to what First Nations were bringing forward in terms of priorities, issues, concerns and the things that are really creating havoc in our communities with respect to the fiscal aspect of our operations."

Earlier this month, Morneau said helping aboriginal people will be a "high priority" in the upcoming budget.

One of his central challenges will be to find a way to pay for pledges that have not been fully priced out, such as ending all boil-water advisories on First Nations reserves within five years and delivering on all 94 recommendations from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.