Minister pledges $1.5B to fix ‘unacceptable gap’ in Indigenous infrastructure during pandemic recovery

Despite huge projected deficit, cash is coming for Liberal platform promises such as MMIWG, clean water, housing, health legislation, RCMP body cams and mercury treatment centres

The federal government has tabled its Fall Economic Statement explaining how Ottawa plans to bounce back from an historic economic recession, projected deficit of $381.6 billion and federal debt exceeding $1 trillion – all largely caused by unprecedented pandemic spending.

“This is a recession like no other we have faced. Women, young people, new Canadians, Black and racialized Canadians have been disproportionately hurt by the COVID-19 recession,” Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland told the House on Monday.

“They are, after all, the Canadians who are most likely to work in some of our hardest-hit industries – including care, hospitality and retail. And we know that First Nation, Inuit and Metis peoples are also disproportionately affected by this pandemic. Our growth plan will be designed with this particular damage in mind and will seek to heal it. This unique recession demands a unique response.”

The statement comes in lieu of a federal budget, which was shelved in March after the novel coronavirus pandemic prompted widespread economic shutdowns.

It builds on the July Economic and Fiscal Snapshot, lays out previous pandemic-related spending, new COVID-19 support funds, money for key elements of the throne speech and a plan to crawl out of the deepening economic crater.

“This is the most severe challenge our country has faced since the Second World War. It is our most severe economic shock since the Great Depression and our most severe public health crisis since the Spanish Flu a century ago,” said Freeland’s speech.

Cash for water, health and housing

Some key takeaways for Indigenous communities include a $380 million top up for the Indigenous Community Support Fund – bringing the total to over $1 billion – as well as an additional $631.6 million to keep battling the coronavirus over the next two years.

Northern territories are getting $64.7 million to fight the virus while $174.3 million is coming for remote communities who rely on air travel as an essential service.

In addition, federal spending on reconciliation-based initiatives will tally upwards of $2.5 billion between now and the 2025-2026 fiscal year. A significant portion of this will go toward providing potable water for First Nations.

“There is an unacceptable gap in infrastructure in Indigenous communities. So, our government proposes to invest $1.5 billion beginning in 2020-21 to speed up the lifting of all long-term drinking water advisories in First Nations communities,” said Freeland.

Ottawa is also spending $25.9 million to accelerate a 10-year commitment to close the infrastructure gap in Indigenous communities and $1.8 billion over seven years to support related initiatives.

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There is also a $15.6 million envelope to fulfil a throne speech promise to co-develop new “distinctions-based health legislation” with Indigenous communities.

The two Ontario First Nations of Asubpeeschoseewagong (Grassy Narrows) and Wabaseemoong also get a five-year funding commitment to the tune of $200 million for the construction and operation of mercury treatment facilities.

The two communities have been dealing with the effects of mercury poisoning for decades, and the new treatment centres were announced earlier this year.

Money to address MMIWG, RCMP reform

The economic statement also includes money to make good on throne speech promises related to missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG) as well as reforming the federal police.

Justin Trudeau’s Liberal minority came under fire for failing to deliver an MMIWG national action plan earlier this year – which they promised they’d do when the inquiry delivered its final report in 2019.

Ottawa now pledges $781.5 million over five years with an ongoing $106 million per year to fight systemic discrimination and violence targeting MMIWG and LGBTQ2S people.

Bill Morneau, former Finance minister, predicted a $343-billion deficit during the July economic snapshot. Photo: APTN/File

The core of that cash is for the launch of a comprehensive Violence Prevention Strategy that will expand access to culturally safe supports such as new shelters and transitional housing for Indigenous peoples across the Canada.

The government also responded to calls for police reform which became widespread after a spate of high-profile incidents of police violence earlier this year, earmarking $250 million over five years for community-based policing services along with $238.5 million plus $50 million ongoing for body cameras for frontline RCMP officers.

“As we build back, we have it within our reach to build back better, tackling challenges that hold us all back: homelessness, systemic racism, the unfinished and essential work of reconciliation,” the finance minister said.

Fighting climate change, protecting ecosystems

The feds also propose to spend up to $3.9 billion over the next decade fighting climate change, protecting forests, creating green jobs and planting two billion trees.

This includes $631 million over 10 years to work with Indigenous communities and other parties to preserve ecologically important carbon sinks like peatlands and wetlands, restore degraded ecosystems, protect wildlife and improve resource management.

But before we can get to this point, said Freeland, the country must first beat back the second wave of the novel coronavirus.

“There is still a lot of hard slogging ahead.”

A possible COVID-19 vaccine represents the first step in that slog.

The opposition Conservatives have criticized the prime minister for apparently falling behind in the race to procure a vaccine.

Freeland said Ottawa has spent over a billion dollars on vaccine agreements which would secure the country 429 million doses, describing inoculation against the deadly virus as a light at the end of the winter’s tunnel.

“After nearly ten months of the pandemic, we are all tired,” she said. “But we also know vaccines and a better day are coming. To get to that day, we must first help each other get through the winter.”

The federal government has spent approximately $2.1 billion helping Indigenous and northern communities out of a total $322 billion spent overall.

The prime minister also announced over half a billion dollars to reform Indigenous child and family services last week.

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