The long-awaited 2021 federal budget pledges to spend more than $18 billion on basic necessities, infrastructure and essential services for Indigenous communities — something the government is calling a “historic, new investment.”
If the minority Liberals pass the budget, the cash would be spent over five years and would include keystone items such as $6 billion for infrastructure, $2.2 billion to end the tragedy of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, and $1.4 billion for First Nations and Inuit health care.
“Our government has made progress in righting the historic wrongs in Canada’s relationship with Indigenous Peoples,” said Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland’s budget speech on Monday. “But we still have a lot of work ahead.”
This work would include another $1.2 billion for Indigenous education, $1.2 billion for the ongoing pandemic response and $1 billion for child and family services.
Other key initiatives include $861 million to improve policing in Indigenous communities, $275 million for culture and language-based programs, $150 million for an Indigenous economic growth fund and $74 million for a new Indigenous justice strategy.
This is Ottawa’s first budget in over two years. It’s also the Liberals’ first since winning a minority government in late 2019 and Freeland’s first as finance head.
The 724-page document explains that the $6 billion for infrastructure includes money for clean water but doesn’t specify how much.
“Budget 2021 lays out a plan to help build resilient Indigenous communities through new, distinctions-based investments in infrastructure, including support for clean drinking water, housing, schools, and roads,” it said.
The feds are also pledging to begin overhauling the Additions to Reserve policy, which enables First Nations to increase their land base but is slow, clunky and has been criticized in the past.
The Liberals also promise to top-up the specific land claims settlement fund in 2022, but they don’t say by how much.
They also propose to negotiate tax agreements “that would enable interested Indigenous governments to implement a fuel, alcohol, tobacco, and cannabis sales tax within their reserves or settlement lands.”
The proposed 2021 Indigenous spending represents a 300 per cent jump from the $4.5 billion announced in the spring 2019 budget. The increase works out to be about 9.5 per cent annually.
The budget builds on funds announced in 2020 and addresses several issues Indigenous people and leaders told APTN News they wanted to see covered.
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But the cash is not guaranteed. The Liberals have a slim minority hold on power and require support from at least one major party in order to pass the budget.
Otherwise, the country will plunge into an election and the budget will become a campaign platform.
The feds basically tossed the books in the fire when the pandemic shut the country down in March 2020, precipitating the steepest economic contraction since the Great Depression.
Ottawa spent hundreds of billions and racked up a deficit that was projected to be the worst since the Second World War.
The economic crater had financial experts, banks and pundits wringing their hands worrying about how, or if, Ottawa plans to balance the books and rein in the wild spending.
An expert who spoke with APTN prior to the budget said he would be eyeing three things: the actual deficit, new big-ticket items and how the feds plan to increase revenues.
Freeland confirmed the government dug itself a $354-billion deficit last fiscal year, which is lower than forecasted. She also doubled down on her department’s plan to spend another $100 billion in stimulus.
As predicted, the budget included a big-ticket proposal to create a $10-per-day national child-care program.
And while Prime Minister Justin Trudeau vowed not to raise taxes, Freeland wants “those who have prospered in this bleak year to do a little more.”
That would mean a national tax on vacant property owned by non-resident, non-Canadians. Ottawa is also looking at striking tax deals with tech giants — or imposing the tax unilaterally —and slapping a luxury tax on expensive cars, plane and boats.
The Liberals also propose to invest $17 billion on green recovery to try and reach Canada’s climate targets and hit net-zero emission by 2050.
The budget points out the North is warming at two times the global rate and promises $40 million over three years to develop hydroelectricity, grid connectivity and clean power to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Food security in the North would also get a $163 million-boost if the budget passes.
The budget does not specifically mention new money for Jordan’s Principle, which was last bolstered in 2019.
The Native Women’s Association of Canada said it is encouraged, at first glance, by the money to deal with the tragedy of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and gender-diverse people.
“We will take a few days to go over the numbers to determine how much will actually flow to Indigenous women’s groups to deal with urgent issues such as the fallout of the pandemic, mental health, and economic development and growth,” the organization said.
“We will also be consulting with experts, Elders, and our grassroots members to hear what they have to say.”
The Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde said via tweet that the cash will “go a long way to closing the gap,” adding that when First Nations succeed so does the rest of the country.
NDP leader Jagmeet Singh reacted by slamming the Liberals for not doing more to tax the ultra-rich — new luxury tax notwithstanding.
He also criticized Trudeau for delivering key campaign promises — like child care and a mandatory federal minimum wage — too late in the Liberal mandate.
“(Trudeau) chooses to continue to spend billions on a pipeline and fossil fuel subsidies,” said Singh in a release, “and he chooses not to do what is needed to fix the housing crisis and historic injustices faced by Indigenous people.”
The release goes on to say that the NDP would “stop making empty promises to Indigenous People and really invest in a National Housing Strategy by and for Indigenous People.”
But Singh told reporters he isn’t interested in holding an election right now. He said it would be an “irresponsible” and “unsafe” move.
Bloc Québécois leader Yves-François Blanchet told reporters that he will vote against the budget if the Bloc’s demands for amendments on health care and senior support aren’t met.
But he too waffled when asked if it was a good time for an election. He said Ontario — currently in the grips of vicious COVID-19 third wave — would be a key battleground making it a bad idea to hold an election there right now.
Conservative leader Erin O’Toole also criticized the budget in a statement released shortly after.
“The Prime Minister wants to test an out-of-control debt plan without any real stimulus, one that abandons the natural resource sector entirely, and provides no real fiscal anchor,” the Tory leader said.
“This Ottawa-knows-best approach will continue to lead to ballooning housing costs, higher taxes, growing risk of inflation, and will leave millions of Canadians behind.”
However, if the other parties vote for the plan, which they appear inclined to do, it will pass.
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