Bellegarde: Time for ‘proper’ talks with Ottawa on $1 billion available for First Nation education

Bellegarde says federal budget ‘very thin’ for First Nations

APTN National News
OTTAWA—Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde said he wants to establish a “proper process” with Ottawa so First Nation students can finally benefit from the over billion dollars still available for on-reserve education.

Bellegarde said the federal 2015-2016 budget tabled Tuesday was “very thin” when it came to First Nation-specific funding. He said the budget failed to deliver any new investments in housing even as bands across the country face a 130,000 unit backlog. The national chief said he wanted to see money for potable water and to deal with the high number of children in the care of social services.

None of these issues found a mention in the budget.

“The list could go on and on,” said Bellegarde. “There is not a heck of a lot there for First Nations people.”

Bellegarde, however, said he wanted Ottawa to start talks with First Nations on the $1.9 billion set aside in the 2014 budget for education. The money was initially tied to proposed legislation to govern on-reserve education. When chiefs rejected the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act, the Harper government put the money on ice.

“Our understanding is that it is still re-profiled for education. Let’s confirm that and let’s establish a proper process between government and First Nations leadership to go and access that so we can make a different in closing the gap on education,” said Bellegarde.

He said on-reserve schools get only $6,500 per student from Ottawa, while the provincial school system invests $10,500 per student and the French-language school system can hit upwards of $20,000 per student.

“We have to address that education fiscal imbalance,” said Bellegarde.

A federal official told APTN National News on background Tuesday that of the $1.9 billion total, about $1.2 billion was still set aside in the fiscal framework for First Nation education.

The federal government used $160 million initially earmarked to help First Nations implement the now shelved First Nations education bill to top up the $200 million in education funds, over five years, announced in the federal budget. Ottawa also previously announced $500 million for building and renovating reserve schools as part of a $5 billion package for federal infrastructure. The school infrastructure funding was initially part of the overall $1.9 billion education package.

Bellegarde said he planned to soon meet with Prime Minister Stephen Harper to discuss this issue and the need to develop a “national comprehensive fiscal framework.”

The national chief also said he planned to start work on pushing First Nations issues up the list of priorities for the next federal budget.

This was the last budget from the Harper government before the next federal election which is scheduled for November.

“There is nothing to really point out that is positive in a big way for First Nation people,” said Bellegarde. “We have a lot of work to do.”

Jeff Cyr, executive director of the National Association of Friendship Centres, said the budget delivered much of what he expected, but he was surprised to see Ottawa re-top the special projects fund with $50 million over five years.

“It allows investment for jobs and employment for Aboriginal people on the ground,” said Cyr.

Cyr said Ottawa invested in friendship centres last year and he expected new money to come again in the next budget.

Liberal Aboriginal affairs critic Carolyn Bennett said the budget failed to meet some of the dire funding issues faced by First Nations around health, education, housing and water. She said the silence of the budget on the over $1 billion previously set aside for First Nations amounted to a claw-back.

“The Harper government is clawing back more than a billion dollars of promised money for First Nations education, which is not just short-sighted, it is unconscionable,” said Bennett.

Green Party leader Elizabeth May said the Stephen Harper government plans to spend more for Canada’s 150th celebration in 2017, with $210 million, than on First Nations education, at $200 million, in its latest budget.

May said Ottawa’s real priority is boosting the resource extraction industry.

“The priorities here are about new subsidies to oil and gas, new subsidies for fracking, new subsidies to the LNG industry, additional subsidies to nuclear energy,” said May. “Overall, the vision for Canada hasn’t changed under Stephen Harper. He wants to see us stay as a bitumen economy that is still struggling to get pipelines out there.”

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