'A Good Start': Trudeau Allocates Unprecedented $8.4 Billion to Indigenous Peoples in 2016 Budget

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau allocated an unprecedented $8.4 billion to Indigenous Peoples in Canada for budget 2016; leaders called it a good start.
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Indigenous leaders across Canada were heartened by a 2016 federal budget proposal that pumps $8.4 billion over five years into addressing the needs of First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples.

The package includes $2.6 billion for education and $1.2 billion for infrastructure improvements such as housing and clean water.

Indigenous leaders unilaterally praised the budget, some calling it transformative and others deeming it a good start. The Assembly of First Nations (AFN) called it a “significant step in closing the gap in the quality of life between First Nations peoples and Canadians,” according to a statement. But other chiefs, and child advocate Cindy Blackstock, said that it did not meet the needs of indigenous children.

“The budget begins to address decades of underfunding and neglect, which have perpetuated a growing gap in the quality of life between First Nations and other Canadians,” said AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde in the statement. “This budget invests in important priorities for First Nations and all Canadians. Investments in housing, clean water, education, and child welfare will bring long-needed relief for those living in third world conditions, and build a stronger economy for everyone.”

Photo: Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press via AP

AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde adjusts a blanket presented to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on December 8, 2015.

Over the next five years, the Trudeau government said, $2.6 billion will be invested in on-reserve primary and secondary education, with an additional $969.4 million put toward First Nations education infrastructure on reserve. Another $1.2 billion over the same time period will support social infrastructure such as quality housing, access to early learning and child care, health care, and cultural and recreational initiatives in First Nations, Inuit and northern communities.

Over the next two years, $15 million will be allocated to launch a job-training pilot project that prepares indigenous people to work in housing construction, water treatment and local administration in their local communities. And there will be as much as $177.7 million over the next two years to address urgent housing needs in northern and Inuit communities. Also, over the next three years, $10.4 million will go toward new abuse shelters in First Nations communities, and $33.6 million will be invested in existing shelters over the next five years.

“We simply cannot claim to be successful as a country as long as Indigenous Peoples aren’t given every chance to succeed,” Finance Minister Bill Morneau said in his speech delivering the budget before Parliament on March 21.

“One of the things I am most proud of in this budget is that we have decided to make very significant investments for indigenous people in this country,” Morneau told reporters at a press conference on Tuesday March 22, according to the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN).

The budget eliminates the two percent cap on annual funding increases for programs and services on reserves, a limit that Indigenous Peoples had long objected to. It also exceeds—and builds on—a set of agreements reached in 2005 between Indigenous Peoples and the Liberal government of Trudeau’s father, the late Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, known as the Kelowna Accords. Those accords were never implemented after Harper's Conservative government took over.

“Today’s federal budget has finally begun to deliver on much needed funding—$8.4 billion over five years—that should start to reverse the tide of poverty and despair that has devastated far too many of our communities and destroyed far too many lives” said Ontario Regional Chief Isadore Day in a statement from the Chiefs of Ontario. “Prime Minister Trudeau has billed this budget as unprecedented and historic for First Nations. Present and future funding must be viewed as an investment in Indigenous Peoples and our children.”

Calling the investment “long overdue,” Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN) Chief Bobby Cameron said that such funding would help all of Canada.

“In the long run, the investment on indigenous people will begin the steps towards a healthier, stronger and educated First Nation population,” Cameron said in a statement. “We want our children to succeed in life and education is a big component in ensuring our children get that opportunity. The education investment will help our schools retain teachers and improve programming for First Nation children. We view this as a good start in our nation to nation relationship based on our Inherent and Treaty Rights."

But a quick analysis showed that the spending falls far short of what children need immediately, Blackstock told APTN. Of the $634.8 million to be invested overall in on-reserve child welfare, only $77 million will be spent this year, she said. In addition, the last year of the total amount won’t be spent until the fiscal year after the next federal election, in fall 2019. President of the First Nation Child and Family Caring Society, Blackstock brought allegedly discriminatory funding practices for on-reserve children before the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, and won the case in January. The current budget does not address the mandate handed down by the tribunal, she said.

“I measure change at the level of children themselves, and what I am looking at is what is going to change tomorrow for First Nation children and families,” Blackstock told APTN. “In this budget, not a lot. I am quite disappointed.”

RELATED: Validated: Canadian Human Rights Tribunal Rules in Favor of First Nations Children

Nevertheless, indigenous leaders saw many pluses, such as the allocations for housing in Nunavut, Nunavik, Nunatsiavut and the Inuvialuit Settlement Region.

“It is a positive change to see Inuit as well as specific Inuit regions recognized in the budget text,” said Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami President Natan Obed in a statement. “The $170 million earmarked in the budget for building affordable housing in Inuit Nunangat is welcome given the severity of crowding in our four regions, and I look forward to working with the government to find ways to achieve the much larger investment that is necessary.”

Photo: Courtesy ITK

Inuit leaders met with Justin Trudeau in January at the offices of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami ITK), the first time a sitting Prime Minister has done so.

He was disappointed, though, in the lack of funding for Inuit mental health and suicide prevention.

“Taking action to prevent suicide in our communities is an urgent priority, and it is not acceptable that basic funding to support this vital work remains incidental year after year,” he said.

The Métis highlighted the government’s promises to spend $25 million over the next five years on a Métis economic development strategy, as well as the $96 million pledged over five years for engaging indigenous governments on a nation-to-nation basis.

"What we saw in Parliament today was truly historic," said Métis Nation of Ontario President Gary Lipinski in a statement. “The government is invested unprecedented funds in its relationship with Indigenous Peoples, and it is honoring its commitment to deal with Indigenous Peoples on a nation-to-nation basis.”

However, Métis National Council (MNO) finance minister David Chartrand told CTV News that he had mixed feelings and was “not fully pleased.”

Photo: Jonathan Hamel, Manitoba Metis Federation

Photo: Prime Minister Trudeau with MNC Finance Minister David Chartrand following budget speech in House.

“Today’s budget has addressed some critical issues,” said Day, echoing the misgivings of many. “However, for First Nations to develop self-sustaining economies the process of reconciliation should be guided by the commitment made to the full implementation of the United Nations Declarations on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Only then will we fulfill the nation-to-nations relationship that our ancestors envisioned centuries ago and truly secure our rightful place in this country.”