Pre-election federal budget contains no big ticket items for First Nations

Finance Minister Joe Oliver didn’t mention the word “Aboriginal” or “First Nation” in his budget speech

Jorge Barrera
APTN National News
Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government tabled its final budget before the next federal election Tuesday and if the document is designed to attract support at the ballot box to keep the current administration in power it’s clear First Nation people do not rank anywhere among the Conservative’s target voter groups.

Finance Minister Joe Oliver didn’t mention the word “Aboriginal” or “First Nation” in his budget speech delivered in the House of Commons Tuesday.

The 2015-2016 federal budget projects a razor-thin $1.4 billion surplus, which is the centre-piece of the document as the Harper government hopes to convince voters it is best positioned of all federal parties to manage the country’s finances wisely.

“Opportunity is what has drawn people here from around the world, generation after generation. It is what draws them still,” said Oliver, in his budget speech. “I will be forever grateful to my grandparents for their fateful decision to immigrate to Canada more than a hundred years ago.”

Yet, for those who trace their ancestry to a time long before Canada became a country, there was little of note in the budget.

The majority of measures announced specifically for First Nations, Inuit and Metis people are simply the continuation of money announced in previous budgets.

On First Nation education, the Harper government simply recycled a small portion of the $1.9 billion announced in last year’s budget as part of the package that was to accompany proposed legislation governing on-reserve education. When the First Nation chiefs turned against the proposed First Nation Control of First Nation Education Act, the Harper government said it would put the money on ice until it got the legislative changes it wanted.

The federal government sliced off bits of that money and put it into the 2015-2016 federal budget. The $200 million over five years unveiled in the budget to “improve First Nations education” is drawn partly from the $160 million the federal government set aside last year to help First Nation communities prepare for the proposed legislation’s implementation. The money breaks down to an additional $40 million a year for First Nation education across the country.

The budget also re-announces the $500 million over six years for on-reserve schools announced last November as part of the federal government’s $5.8 billion infrastructure package.

A federal official said, on background, that $1.2 billion of the money announced in 2014 still remains set-aside in the fiscal framework for First Nation education. The budget document, however, doesn’t mention the amount, meaning it has not set plans yet to use the money.

The other big dollar amount item in the 2015-2016 budget deals with a $215 million investment over five years for “Aboriginal labour market programming.” In addition, the budget earmarks $33.5 million over the same time span for “Administrative support” for the program. The money will also be used for an on-reserve pilot labour force survey to “improve available labour market information.”

The bulk of this new training money is a continuation of the $210 million, also spread over five years, announced in 2010, for project-specific training.

The money comes in addition to the $350 million a year Ottawa provides in training for its Aboriginal Skills and Employment Training Strategy.

The budget also sets aside $12 million over three years, or $4 million a year, for the Indspire scholarship and bursaries for First Nation and Inuit students. The money follows a similar investment from 2013.

The budget invests $30.3 million over five years, roughly $6 million a year, for bands admitted under the First Nations Land Management Act. The Act gives bands the ability to set laws governing their lands. The 2013 budget put $9 million over two years toward the land regime. The continuation of funding is expected to accommodate about 25 First Nations which are expected to come under the regime. There are currently 94 First Nations which have been accepted under the Act.

First Nation mental health services also get a $2 million in ongoing funding beginning in 2016-2017.

The budget will continue to fund on-reserve and off-reserve surveys targeting First Nation, Inuit and Metis people with $33.2 million over the next five years, $22.3 million coming from the existing budgets of Aboriginal Affairs, Health Canada and Employment and Social Development Canada. The next survey is expected to range from 2016-2017 to 2020-2021 and focus on “participation in the economy.”

The budget sets aside $5.7 million over five years to help the sealing industry, in which the Inuit are involved, market its products.

The 2015-2016 budget says the federal government plans to introduce amendments to the First Nations Fiscal Management Act. The amendments are expected to improve the ability of First Nations to pool their resources and issue bonds for infrastructure projects.

The budget document says Ottawa is interested in helping First Nation communities develop regimes to tax people living on their territories.

Ottawa currently has 35 sales tax arrangements allowing Indian Act bands and self-government First Nations to levy sales taxes within their territories. Ottawa also has 14 arrangements allowing self-government First Nation communities to impose income taxes on all people living on settlement lands.

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