Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo is not as critical as his regional counterparts of the federal budget that was brought down on March 29.
“It leaves room for hope,” said Atleo, although he admits that the budget – toted to hold more First Nations-specific initiatives than any other Conservative budget – isn’t everything asked for.
But Atleo said the funding that was committed is at least stable and predictable for the two or three years that it is spread out over.
“To jointly achieve stable, predictable and most importantly sustainable funding … has been the biggest challenge that First Nations have faced,” said Atleo. That work is not done, though, he added. “The next step is to push and to do the hard work of achieving sustainable, predictable funding. To do that jointly with the government is going to require us to get to work right away.”
Criticism has been steep from First Nations leaders across the country.
Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations Vice-Chief Simon Bird said the $275 million allotted for education is a “drop in the bucket” of what is needed, while a statement from Lake Huron Regional Grand Chief Isadore Day said “the budget looks like more of a piecemeal approach to dealing with First Nations issues.”
Atleo said details are vague as to the use of some of the resources that were outlined by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty.
“We’re working hard to seek clarification over the next coming days to determine what the possibilities are, to become more clear about what those possibilities are,” Atleo said the day after the budget was delivered.
Areas that have been red-flagged include education, where the $275 million allotted falls well short of the $500 million AFN said was required; water infrastructure in which $331 million was budgeted but a report commissioned by Aboriginal and Northern Affairs Canada indicated that at least $1 billion was needed to bring water and wastewater systems up to department standards; and, if the $12 million given for family violence prevention on reserves as well as $100 million for Aboriginal mental health programs may work are linked to the lack of dollars shelters on-reserve received.
Other issues that AFN will seek clarification on that were noted in the budget but with no dollars attached are the government’s promise to work with First Nations on land claim settlements; the push by ANAC to explore private property ownership on reserves, which Atleo said “is very clear that by and large the majority of First Nations do not support the move toward private property;” and, “addressing negotiations and the fact that the negotiation policy of government is fundamentally based on denial and non-recognition … that is a challenge we have to address first off,” said Atleo.
Also of concern is the 2.7 per cent cut that was made to Aboriginal and Northern Affairs Canada. Other federal departments were sliced five to 10 per cent. Cuts to ANAC will total $250 million over three years. Falling on the chopping block will be the First Nations Statistical Institution, which will lose all of its $5 million in funding by 2014-2015.
Atleo said AFN lobbied the government that cuts to ANAC “not happen on the back of services to First Nations within our respective territories… because our people are already the most vulnerable, already the most marginalized.”
Atleo held that the budget is an indication that the government is listening.
“More broadly, First Nations were (included) throughout the budget. There’s a sense that our voices are beginning to be heard, that the future prosperity of this country is going to depend on First Nations being a full partner with Canada. But there is a long ways to go,” he said.
Other Aboriginal-related budget items included $27 million, two year commitment to continue the Urban Aboriginal Strategy job training projects and skills development initiatives; $33.5 million to support First Nations commercial fishing; $88 million to address flooding; $13.6 million to support consultation processes; and, improved incentives in the on-reserve Income Assistance Program to align them with what is being offered by the provinces.