Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller on the $18B pledged for Indigenous communities in 2021 budget

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller spoke with CBC Indigenous about spending promised for First Nations, Inuit, and Métis communities in the federal government's 2021-2022 budget.

'The only way we will close those gaps . . . are by relentless, sustained investments'

Minister of Indigenous Services Marc Miller at a news conference in Ottawa in March. He spoke recently with CBC Indigenous about the 2021 federal budget. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller spoke with CBC Indigenous about spending promised for First Nations, Inuit, and Métis communities in the federal government's 2021-2022 budget.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Q. Over $18 billion over the next five years [promised for Indigenous communities in the 2021 federal budget] is more than the two previous budgets combined. Setting aside this amount of funding for First Nations, Inuit and Métis, what does this signify to the federal government?

A. I think it reflects the seriousness of this government and financial backing associated with it, to advance the closing of socioeconomic gaps that have undermined our relationship with Indigenous Peoples. $18 billion is the amount that falls, roughly speaking, under Indigenous Services Canada and Crown-Indigenous Relations, so there's actually much more; so $18 billion is actually the lower end.

It really is a signal that we will be further committed to closing the socioeconomic gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Peoples and primarily through a number of initiatives that have become more acute through the pandemic. There's still more work to do and I think our government recognizes that the only way we will close those gaps, the gaps in education, gaps in health care, gaps in infrastructure and others are by relentless, sustained investments in these fields. 

Q: The budget covers many areas from COVID response/recovery, Indigenous languages, infrastructure, the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG). What is the highlight for you?

A. I want to lift up and highlight the work that Indigenous leadership has done in communicating in an effective, coherent fashion, the numbers associated with the needs.

I look at this budget as the most significant investment in Indigenous matters that has ever been made, knowing that once passed, the hard work begins. 

Q. When it comes to infrastructure, the Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador said these investments are still insufficient to meet the housing needs of First Nations in Quebec, as construction and lumber costs have skyrocketed this year. How do you respond to those criticisms? 

A. With the realization that the sustained investment this government has to close that infrastructure gap by 2030 will not be completely effected through short-term investments. My department has the task of going out into communities and getting a sense of what communities' infrastructure plans are, quantifying them and then going back to cabinet for a longer-term infrastructure plan to close that gap. And that's quite a challenge. But we can't wait for that. We have to make those investments. These investments are significant, they're historic. 

Q. There's a theme of distinctions-based, Indigenous-led approaches throughout this budget. Why is that an important aspect of this government's view to strengthen Indigenous communities?

A.  We've heard loud and clear that people want to see themselves in the budget, and that's what we've attempted to do. We know that Inuit communities have distinct challenges. A dollar in the north is not the same thing as a dollar in the south. Métis communities have real and present challenges in infrastructure, and all the engagement that we've had with them over the last few years. Then, First Nations communities are as numerous as they are distinct. That is very hard to reflect all that nuance in a budgetary document that, by its nature, is supposed to be broad and large. As much as it's a solid document, it has to be specific and we have to use the language that our Indigenous partners are asking us to use.

Q. Budget 2021 is promising to invest in Indigenous Languages — $275 million over five years. But the previous budget projected $275 million to be spent over the next three years, a shorter time frame. Why does it seem like funding for Indigenous languages is being cut in this budget?

A. So those are cumulative and they're re-ups. [ISC later clarified that "cumulative" means the funding announced in this year's budget is in addition to previously announced funding.] When coming into power in 2015, the numbers were abysmal and people were really scratching to the depths of their pockets to fund programs, revitalize their communities, people are reclaiming their language and we have to keep investing.

I think it's less appreciated what a treasure in a community that elders are, and those that fight against all odds to preserve their languages, and every death is a tragedy. You're essentially losing a living dictionary. We see communities taking extraordinary measures to protect their own, it's in part a reflection of the value of the elders, not only their knowledge, but the way of expressing that culture.

The protection of their elders, language and culture, particularly in the face of COVID, that's not lost on me when it comes to Indigenous Peoples and the work we have to do to support communities through that. When you reflect on the last year of the pandemic, certainly the fact that we have failed our elderly in Canada is something that we need to reflect soberly on as Canadians.

There's lessons to be learnt from Indigenous communities as to how you protected your peoples. Language is a part of that and clearly the investments have reflected the even more pressing need to support language preservation and revitalization. 

Q. The 2019 budget promised to create the Office of the Commissioner of Indigenous Languages, hiring a commissioner of Indigenous Languages and directors. That is not mentioned in this budget; what is happening with that?

A. In the short end, it's coming up in very short order. The whole point behind it was to take the political aspect away from Indigenous language funding and really put it in the hands of those who know best.

Q. Budget 2021 proposes to provide $1 billion over five years for Child and Family Services, with $594 million for 2021-22 then dropping to $140 million in the subsequent years. Why is this budget showing a massive drop in funding for child and family services after this fiscal year?

A. There's a number of reforms; I'm sure you're aware of the broken system we're trying to fix, by compensating the damage and harm insofar as money can replace it to the children that have been removed, whether it's the ongoing discussions around child and family services class actions that are outstanding as well as the [Human Rights Tribunal] decisions or the orders. We've recently moved quickly to implement one of the orders which will equalize funding to First Nations in comparison to agencies.

The fall economic statement . . . announced a little over $500 million to implement child and family services reform, to move the whole system to one that affirms self-determination of Indigenous peoples and the transition to a system that is focused less toward intervention and more toward prevention; that is work that is outstanding and that is work we know it will cost billions to fix.

Q. In the budget, it says funding for Indigenous policing addresses the MMIWG inquiry's calls for justice, but funding for Indigenous police services has long been an issue before the inquiry and before the Viens Commission report that was released a couple months later. Why fund it now? 

A. They were underfunded and it wasn't right. So this budget undertook to invest in and to bolster the First Nations policing program, that itself needs a rework as well as we move toward legislation governing First Nations policing as an essential service. And the fact that we have to say is an essential service, should, I suspect, give us all pause as to as to why it's not considered an essential service right now.

The budget has announced a few hundred million to bolster that program, as well as the work on the legislation. It's very important to take a more holistic approach to the way communities ensure their own safety. 

Q. We're still in a pandemic. The budget includes a lot of COVID-19 responses, what are your thoughts looking towards the future?

A. I think recognition that this isn't over. A third wave is hitting, particularly in Ontario, quite hard. The $1.4 billion that was earmarked for COVID response is one that has been quite popular with Indigenous communities because it's provided a wide amount of discretion for health leadership to do what they know best, to help their people and that needs to continue. 

The announcement for fighting COVID was called for in the budget over a two-year period, and that's to address not only the present third wave and moving forward with getting everyone vaccinated, but also the after effects. One of those important after effects is going to be the effect on people's mental health.