Next week’s federal budget to reveal truth behind Liberal promises to Indigenous peoples

Liberals have stoked expectations this next federal budget will be pivotal for Indigenous communities

Jorge Barrera
APTN National News
Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett laughed when Bobby Cameron, the Assembly of First Nations regional Chief for Saskatchewan, said he’d like to see the minister put the promised $2.6 billion for education inside the hand-made basket he had just gifted her on stage.

It was Feb. 23 at a conference of First Nation education directors held in a ballroom at the Delta Hotel in downtown Ottawa. Bennett had just given a speech about education that didn’t mention the multi-billion dollar promise the Liberals made in the opening weeks of the last federal election.

After the speech, Cameron gave Bennett the gift of the basket.

“If you just open that up, don’t be afraid to put a $2.6 billion investment in there,” said Cameron.

The room burst into laughter and clapping.

But Bennett knew something that day that Cameron and the rest of the room didn’t. The $2.6 billion promise was in trouble because it was built on money that didn’t exist.

The Liberals built their promise, which Prime Minister Justin Trudeau unveiled on the campaign trail last August, on the belief the Conservatives left $1.7 billion on the books for First Nation education. The Trudeau government planned to only invest $900 million in new money for education, topping off the promise with former prime minister Stephen Harper’s left-overs.

APTN asked Bennett after her Feb. 23 speech if the education money still existed. Bennett said she knew the answer, but wasn’t sure if she could say it publicly. Her communications director Carolyn Campbell then intervened with a promise Bennett’s office would provide the answer later that day, but then failed to follow through on her word.

Then, last Thursday, an anonymous government official leaked word to the Globe and Mail that the money wasn’t there. The next day Bennett, now allowed to speak on the issue, stood in the House of Commons and claimed the Conservatives had “removed” the money for First Nations education from the books.

Technically, that wasn’t true. The money was there, but the Conservatives had “reprofiled” it, meaning it had been spread out over 15 years in the fiscal framework. The fiscal framework is basically a Finance department spreadsheet with the government’s projected revenues, expenditures and debt payments mapped-out into the future.

Plus, there was never $1.7 billion for First Nation education in the fiscal framework. The previous Conservative government only ever claimed it set aside $1.25 billion, which was part of a pot of money linked to passage of the 2014 First Nation Control of First Nation Education Act which died on the Order Paper after First Nation chiefs turned against it.

Now, with less than a week to go before the release of the next federal budget, it appears the Liberal government is trying to prepare the groundwork for the possibility it won’t be able to meet its $2.6 billion education promise, said NDP critic Charlie Angus.

“A week before the budget the Liberals throw up this trial balloon suddenly the money they thought was there based on a broken Conservative promise isn’t there,” said Angus. “That tells me there is a political play underway, either they are going to renege on the full commitment they made to First Nation education or they are going to say we have to take it out of other priorities for First Nation communities like water and infrastructure.”

A Finance department spokesperson said in an email there was only $241 million in the fiscal framework for First Nation education over the next three years. This means the Liberals have about $1.1 billion in their hand as a starting point for their promise to First Nation students. The government needs to find about $1.5 billion to meet the $2.6 billion promise.

For Cameron, the chief who gifted Bennett the basket, it’s important for the Liberals to come through with the promised money.

“The number, it signifies what we have been advocating and lobbying for, for many, many years,” said Cameron, who is also chief of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN), in an interview Monday. “It is absolutely imperative and crucial that this funding increase and commitment happens.”

All will be revealed on March 22, next Tuesday, when the Liberal government unveils its first federal budget.

There are high expectation from Indigenous groups and communities for this budget. Those expectations have been stoked by the Liberals themselves.

Every cabinet minister’s mandate letter from Trudeau states there is no relationship more important to the government than the relationship with Indigenous peoples.

Trudeau has promised to lift the two per cent cap on yearly program funding along with creating new fiscal relationship with First Nations. He has also promised clean water for every First Nation community within four years.  Bennett, along with Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, have also stated the government plans to revamp the child welfare system on reserves.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau has even claimed he plans to wear moccasins on budget day—as it is the tradition for finance ministers to wear new shoes on the day the new spending plan is released—signaling this federal budget will be geared toward the needs of Indigenous peoples and communities.

Morneau’s office refused to comment Tuesday on whether the minister would be wearing moccasins on budget day.

“We aren’t commenting on anything related to the budget, including the pre-budget photo ops,” said Daniel Lauzon, a spokesperson for Morneau’s office.

Sources connected to First Nation organizations say they have been told that the Liberal budget would focus on education, child welfare and water and wastewater infrastructure.

“Quite a bit is riding on this budget,” said AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde, in a recent interview with APTN‘s political program Nation to Nation. “I am hopeful and optimistic that those investments should be there…The messages coming back is they get it.”

The lists of asks is long.

In their pre-budget submissions, the AFN said it wanted to see $464 million in new money for First Nation education this year, $119 million a year, plus a 3 per cent escalator, for on-reserve child welfare, $15.4 million over four years for Indigenous languages, $201 million over four years for First Nation policing, $555 million a year over the next four years for housing, and $155 million in new money annually for water and waste water infrastructure.

The AFN is also looking for $200 million over four years for First Nations organizations.

Inuit organizations are also hoping the next federal budget meets some of the pressing needs facing their communities.

Natan Obed, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), said his organizations saw its budget slashed by 50 per cent since 2011.

“We expect there will be some new funds that will get us back to the place where we can be respectful partners at the table,” said Obed.

Obed said Inuit communities also face serious infrastructure needs, including the need for new money for social housing, ports, upgrading airports and connections between north and south.

“We hope there will be some funding for infrastructure,” he said. “It would be a step toward sustainability in our communities.”

Obed said he hoped the next federal budget would also solidify the Liberal government’s stated intentions—which emerged during the climate change meetings in Vancouver and in a continental climate change agreement with the U.S.—on moving Arctic communities off diesel power generation to cleaner sources of energy.

“We hope to see some funding for that next step beyond diesel in our communities,” he said.

The president of ITK said he’d also like to see the next federal budget put some much needed money toward a strategy to combat suicide—which is an issue that has also caused much suffering in many northern First Nation communities.

“We have been talking about mental health and suicide prevention,” said Obed. “It would be wonderful to see a closing the gap on health inequities in this budget.”

The Metis National Council also has high hopes for next week’s federal budget.

“We want recognition of the Metis Nation, for our populace,” said David Chartrand, vice-president of the Metis National Council. “We pay hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes, so this is not like a hand-out for us.”

Chartrand said he is looking for Trudeau to follow through in the budget on his promise to invest $25 million over four years for a Metis economic development strategy.

He is also watching for the Liberals to put new money into the Aboriginal Employment and Training Strategy programs. Chartrand said the Metis expect about $50 million from the program earmarked in the next federal budget.

“It is a wise investment to put toward Metis people,” said Chartrand. “These investments are not only a benefit to us directly, but they are a benefit to the provinces and Canada as a whole…It is a wise investment for the government. It is a win for Canada as a whole.”

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