First Nations youth get $241M 'workfare' program

Canada's First Nations found programs and money peppered throughtout this year's federal budget. But critics say a new training initiative aimed at native youths may be a tough sell on reserves.

Hundreds of millions of dollars for First Nations infrastructure, education, health and policing

File Hills First Nations Police Const. Dale McArthur arrives at work near Fort Qu'Appelle, Sask. (Troy Fleece/Canadian Press)

Canada’s First Nations found programs and money for their communities peppered throughout this year’s federal budget. But critics say a new training initiative aimed at native youths may be a tough sell.

The marquee item is a $241-million bundle of cash over five years that will go to job training for aboriginal youth who are receiving income assistance. That makes good on a promise from last year.

About half the money will go to setting up the program on reserves but the other half — money to pay for personalized job training — will only be accessible if welfare recipients agree to participate in the program.

That prompted some quick criticism from Opposition politicians, who said the Prime Minister should have consulted with native groups first.

"At a time when First Nations are holding out a hand for reconciliation, he's giving them the back of his hand," said NDP Leader Tom Mulcair.

"It's insulting, it's paternalistic and they're the only ones who are getting this kind of proposal."

The budget document warns that "funding [to deliver the training programs] will be accessible only to those reserve communities that choose to implement mandatory participation in training for young income assistance recipients." 

Appearing later on CBC News Network's Power & Politics, Mulcair called the program "workfare," referring to the nickname given to the Ontario Works program introduced under former Ontario premier Mike Harris, which tightened rules for welfare eligibility.

The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs took aim at the skills training program in a statement Thursday.

"Announcements on re-allocated funding for skills and trade development tied to compulsory program changes is nothing short of coercion and racialized policy implementation," Grand Chief Derek Nepinak said in the statement.

The Manitoba chiefs' statement called the budget a "status quo budget" that "means a continuation of escalating poverty and a continuing failure to meet the basic needs of families" in First Nations communities.

National Chief Shawn Atleo of the Assembly of First Nations said in a statement Thursday the budget affirms the government's recent commitment to high-level dialogue, but doesn't deliver on promises of investment.

"Budget 2013 makes reference to First Nations in almost every section, which suggests that the unprecedented attention and engagement of our peoples is beginning to be heard, but the investment just isn’t there," Atleo said.

Improving graduation rates

The budget announced plans to introduce a First Nations Education Act, a draft of which is to be shared with First Nations communities. Ottawa wants to have the law in place by late 2014 in the hope it will improve graduation rates among native youth.

First Nations and Inuit students will also benefit from post-secondary bursaries and scholarships worth $10 million over two years.

Building Aboriginal Communities specifically earmarks $186 million for health, justice, land claims and land management over a two-year period. Much of that is a renewal of funding for programs that would have run out of money otherwise.

Native justice issues get $71 million in funding and $11 million will go to help native communities take more control over their justice systems. The prevention of family violence gets $24 million in funding.

Reserve policing will get $36 million. Of that, $3 million is being specifically devoted to tackling contraband tobacco. That means an extra 10 on-reserve police officers whose job will be to hunt down illegal tobacco products.

Land claims

Beyond justice issues, the government said it will reinvest in settling land claims and helping First Nations manage and develop their reserve lands.

The government said it wants to speed up the settlement of land claims that are close to resolution and has set aside $54 million to that end.

Ottawa also wants to put $9 million towards getting First Nations to enact "laws for the development, conservation, use and possession of reserve lands."

Improving aboriginal health is another focus. The budget sets aside $48 million to help connect native patients with medical professionals. In particular, the budget calls for increased use of technologies like video-conferencing to achieve that goal.

Mental health and suicide prevention measures will get $4 million.

The budget also provides $155 million over 10 years for infrastructure improvements on reserves. 

With files from The Canadian Press