Widespread federal cuts to aboriginal organizations and projects has First Nations across Canada crying foul.
But Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development (AAND) John Duncan insists that the cuts, announced on September 4, will free up funds over two years for other areas deemed “priorities.”
“The Government of Canada is taking concrete steps to create the conditions for healthier, more self-sufficient aboriginal communities,” Duncan said in a statement. “To sustain that progress we are changing the funding model for aboriginal organizations and tribal councils, to make funding more equitable among organizations across the country and ensure funding is focused on our shared priorities.”
The cuts vary but have led to outcry from aboriginal agencies and governments alike. In the deepest cases, disbursements will be axed by up to 80 percent; most organizations were either capped at $500,000 funding, or reduced by 10 percent.
Reaction was swift and sweeping. Decrying the changes as “severe,” the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) said the cuts will only harm economic prospects for struggling communities. The AFN, which represents all 633 First Nations in Canada, reported losing 42 percent of its “core funding” over several years, and said its overall budget has been slashed in half.
“These funding reductions have the potential to create very serious negative impacts for First Nation families and in turn the broader community and all Canadians,” AFN National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo said in a statement. “First Nations demand an end to unilateral decisions that impact our people.... Investment to building capacity within First Nation communities is a necessary requirement to achieve change in communities and entire regions, which will also act as a long-term economic stimulus plan for First Nations and other Canadians.”
The deepest cuts hit the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs (AMC), which lost 80 percent—more than $2 million—of its budget. It accused the federal government of punishing overly critical opponents.
“We have at times been vocal critics of federal policy and prescriptive laws,” AMC Grand Chief Derek Nepinak said in a September 6 statement. “Without the funding currently received, the ability to confront policymakers and inform legislative processes in Ottawa will be severely limited... We will be unable to function in almost all of our key areas. It is my observation that Harper's plan to develop billions of dollars in natural resources also includes efforts to silence those First Nations people living on those resource rich lands.”
But describing the changes as a “new model” to make disbursement of funds “more equitable”—including an easier application and reporting process—AAND pointed to funding increases in four areas as proof that its decision was not political.
While the total cuts have not yet been tallied beyond an estimate of many tens, possibly hundreds, of millions of dollars, the government said it has also earmarked nearly $650 million for four key areas: improving on-reserve water quality and infrastructure ($330.8 million), aboriginal education ($275 million), an urban Indigenous strategy ($27 million) and resource project consultations ($13.6 million).
“Let's be truthful here,” said Anishinabek Nation Grand Chief Patrick Madahbee in a September 7 statement. “Canada is aiming to divide First Nation communities so they can create a vacuum in order to gain control over our people and our land.”
But the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN) insisted it “remains optimistic about the future” in spite of the changes, which cost the 74-band alliance more than $1 million, nearly 70 percent of its budget.
The president-elect of the Native Women's Association of Canada, which faces modest cuts, said that clawbacks would particularly hit indigenous women, and she pledged “to ensure that Canadian society understands how these cuts will impact everyone.”
More on Canada's 2012 budget and cuts: