Indigenous

Ontario budget's cuts to Indigenous Affairs a setback for reconciliation, says Carolyn Bennett

The Ontario budget released this week has some saying that reconciliation does not appear to be a priority with the new Progressive Conservative government. 

Base funding to ministry reduced by 15%, no planning for claim settlement payouts

Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett says she was 'extraordinarily disappointed' by the Ontario budget. (CBC News)

The Ontario budget released this week has some saying that reconciliation does not appear to be a priority with the new Progressive Conservative government. 

Cuts of nearly $1 billion from the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services over three years and a 15 per cent cut in core funding for the Ministry of Indigenous Affairs is attacking the most vulnerable, according to Kiiwetinoong New Democrat MPP Sol Mamakwa.

"When we talk about the budget, it's kind of like what we can foresee in the next year," he said.

"It seems that the budget forecast says that Indigenous people do not matter with this government, it's very clear from the cuts that they've made."

'Real setback' to reconciliation

Federal Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett said she was "extraordinarily disappointed" in the Ontario budget and that it's a "real setback" in the momentum of reconciliation in Canada.

The Ministry of Indigenous Affairs' budget last year was $146 million. This year its base funding was reduced by 15 per cent to 74.4 million, down from 88 million last year, and there is no allotment for one-time investments such as claim settlements.

"The whole point of settlements is to try to get out of court and to be able to negotiate a settlement that is fair for those communities," said Bennett.

She said that though it's not clear how Ontario is going to bookkeep settlements, in the cases going forward, the Ontario government will be needed at the table and they will will have to "sort that out."

Ontario Finance Minister Vic Fedeli presents the 2019 budget as Premier Doug Ford looks on at the legislature in Toronto on Thursday. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

In an email response to CBC News, a spokesperson from the Office of Greg Rickford, Minister of Energy, Mines, Northern Development and Indigenous Affairs said "One-time funding amounts for land settlement claims for the coming fiscal year have not been settled at this time, hence no number allotted."

"We are not speculating on the one-time funding amount at this time."

The spokesperson added $2.7 million has been earmarked in support of Indigenous economic development, money that will be spread between the Indigenous Economic Development Fund, New Relationship Fund, Indigenous Community Capital Grants Program and the Métis Voyageur Development Fund.

Concern over power grid project

Alvin Fiddler, Grand Chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) that represents 49 First Nations communities in Northern Ontario, said that despite references to some of NAN's projects and territory, the budget lacked details on how the province plans on honouring the commitments it has made.

One of those involves connecting remote communities to the provincial power grid.

In December 2018, Pikangikum First Nation became the first community to draw power from the provincial grid through the Wataynikaneyap Power Project, which is to connect an additional 15 communities by 2023.

"There's no sort of concrete commitments on how they plan on supporting the rest of the project which is just getting off the ground," said Fiddler.

The former diesel generating station in Pikangikum, Ont., at the airport is now idle, after the community was connected to the provincial power grid, via Wataynikaneyap Power's line through Red Lake, Ont. (Jeff Walters/CBC)

Fiddler said the NAN team is working on breaking down the numbers presented in the budget to figure out what it really means moving forward, but he remains skeptical about the PC government's commitment to reconciliation.

"One of the first things that they did was to cancel the Indigenous curriculum work that was going on at the time," said Fiddler.

"To me that just sent a signal to Indigenous Peoples that any commitment to reconciliation by this new government was under question."

About the Author

Rhiannon Johnson is an Anishinaabe journalist from Hiawatha First Nation based in Toronto. She has been with the Indigenous unit since 2017 focusing on Indigenous life and experiences throughout Ontario. You can reach her at rhiannon.johnson@cbc.ca and on Twitter @rhijhnsn.