Prime Minister Justin Trudeau won the hearts of many Canadians by finally getting rid of Stephen Harper and his decade of oppression, violation of civil rights and vilification of First Nations.
Most breathed a sigh of relief on October 20, 2015 when newly elected Trudeau talked about changing everything in Canada. He gave moving speeches about Canada’s shameful history with Indigenous peoples and committed to implementing all the calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).
Trudeau promised to start this process by implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and respecting the right of First Nations to say no to development on their territories. Most significant were his promises to renew the nation-to-nation relationship between Canada and First Nations that would be guided by the spirit and intent of treaties and that respected constitutionally protected Aboriginal and treaty rights, inherent rights and First Nation jurisdictions.
Today’s budget saw these promises evaporate into thin air only to be replaced by an underfunded program and service agenda.
Today is a very difficult day for many Canadians. They are being asked to celebrate a budget which is being promoted as “historic” not just by Trudeau and the majority of journalists and commentators in mainstream media, but even by the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) National Chief Perry Bellegarde.
Canadians are faced with two major obstacles to understanding this budget: one, trying to figure out which numbers are accurate; and two, assessing those numbers in their proper context.
‘Real Change’ by shell game
First, it’s important to note that Trudeau’s budget plays a shell game on the actual funding commitment during his four-year (now three-and-a-half-year) mandate. As we all know, monies promised for future mandates are not monies at all. This budget promised $8.4 billion to First Nations, but is in fact, less than $5.3 billion.
So, in actual fact, Trudeau is only offering $5.3 billion in the next three budget years. The $2.6 billion he promised First Nations is really only $1.15 billion. He failed to deliver on his own election promise to First Nations. Now, he made sure to blame it on the Conservatives prior to the budget being released, but the failure is ultimately his. Still, without the proper context, many Canadians may think that billions of dollars is a lot of money. The chart below takes only a few examples and shows just how abysmally small this “historic” budget is in reality.
Where did I come with the $20 billion for First Nation housing? Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC)’s own internal report noted that the housing needs for the 63 First Nations in Manitoba would cost $2 billion. Since Manitoba First Nations represent only 10 per cent of all First Nations, the national cost to address the housing crisis would be closer to $20 billion give or take a few dollars.
In First Nation education, the two per cent funding cap imposed by the former Liberal government created a cumulative deficit of over $20 billion. This means First Nations are more than $20 billion behind the starting line when it comes to infrastructure (schools), staff, training, materials, curriculum development, etc.
That doesn’t include extra costs for post-secondary education that has created a waiting list of thousands of First Nation students. Yet, there was no budget line for post-secondary education — instead there was only a promise that Trudeau’s government would work with students, parents, educators and Indigenous groups to “explore” future options.
First Nation water and sewer should have been an easy budget line to address since there are already independent studies on what the actual costs are to address the crisis. The last report said it would cost almost $6 billion to fix the current water and sewer stock with an additional $2 billion for operation and maintenance needed over the next four years. Add to this a conservative estimate of $10 billion to add new water and sewer infrastructure that will be needed to service all the new houses needed in First Nations and you get a rough number of $18 billion. As anyone knows, the longer houses, water, sewer or any infrastructure system is left without maintenance and service, the worse it deteriorates, costing more to fix.
The commitment to protect and support Indigenous languages is one of the most shocking lines in this budget. The TRC report recommended substantial support to revive and protect Indigenous languages since they are only endangered because of Canada’s purposeful attempts to wipe out our languages in various assimilation policies including residential schools.
I made a conservative estimate of the cost based on what is currently spent on protecting the French language in Canada — approximately $2.4 billion annually. Given that there are approximately 53 Indigenous languages spread out over 10 provinces and three territories, and given that the majority of these languages are in critical states nearing extinction, much more intervention would be needed up front to save them.
Thus, $20 billion over three years would provide enough up front funding to create immersion programs on reserve, develop or expand curriculum, and hire and train staff. This is a massive undertaking that is no less important than protecting French language and is an essential part of real reconciliation.
First Nations children still in crisis
It’s hard to believe that Trudeau would not at least ensure that the budget line for First Nation child and family services was consistent with the costs noted in the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal in the child welfare case it lost. An increase of $200 million is needed annually just to get child welfare funding for First Nations children somewhere close to provincial levels of funding.
Yet the budget shows a mere $71 million for next year and $99 million the year after. These levels are nowhere near what are needed to address the crisis of First Nations children in foster care. In Manitoba alone, 90 per cent of all kids in care are Indigenous with one baby taken away from its mother every day on average. Nationally, despite being on four per cent of the population, Indigenous kids represent about half of all kids in care. Sadly, it looks like Cindy Blackstock’s fight for justice for our kids is not over.
Even the amount set aside for a national inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls pales in comparison to the costs of past inquiries. But we also have to realize that not all of the $5.3 billion is even going to go to First Nations. A large percentage is set to go to INAC, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corp, the National Energy Board, various political organizations and even former Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin. So once again, the bureaucracy will benefit first.
Also, due to the length of this blog, it couldn’t include any analysis of the funding deficiencies for Indigenous peoples living off-reserve or the Inuit in the north — which would only compound the grossly underfunded budget presented. There are just too many budget items to go through in the space of one blog. However, there are some glaring omissions that have to be highlighted.
All of the above were unequivocal election promises that were re-affirmed after Trudeau’s successful election, in his speech to the Special Chiefs Assembly. He told APTN in one definitive word that First Nations’ right to veto a project on their land was absolute. His promise to change everything about the status quo that is currently killing our people was based on a renewed nation-to-nation relationship.
Trudeau’s honeymoon is over for Indigenous people
Not only did he back away from supporting a First Nation’s right to say no to development, with this budget so too does the nation to nation relationship disappear. There are no real funds set aside to support this foundational promise and his words say it all.
Nowhere in the budget document does he refer to this “nation-to-nation” relationship, but instead refers to a renewed relationship with “Canada’s” Indigenous people aimed at “unifying Canada” and ensuring participation of Indigenous people in the economy.
Throughout the document we have been downgraded from Nations to people, groups, communities and stakeholders. There is no mention of UNDRIP, TRC, or free, informed and prior consent. There is no mention of the “sacred” constitutionally protected Aboriginal and treaty rights in need of implementation. In fact, the nation-to-nation relationship based on free informed and prior consent turned into a “partnership” based on “consultation, and where appropriate, accommodation.” We are back to square one: letting courts determine the relationship.
If you are the kind that is OK with endless “first steps” or “its a start” or believe “every dollar counts” or “something is better than nothing” or “we better take what we can get” — then I’m sure the budget works for you.
However, I think our children deserve better than this. I think reconciliation envisions far more than this. If we don’t use our collective power as Indigenous Nations and allied Canadians to set this government back on track, we risk another lost decade and many more lost lives.
I think I can definitively say the honeymoon is over. Time to snap back to reality and stop being distracted by the shiny beads and trinkets contained in all the flowery speeches and smiling photo ops.
The health of our planet and future generations depends on us taking our role as the real governing power seriously. We need to hold this government accountable for its commitments and hold ourselves accountable to act and speak honestly.
This budget is crap and we all deserve better.
Dr. Pamela D. Palmater is a Mi’kmaw lawyer and member of the Eel River Bar First Nation in New Brunswick. She teaches Indigenous law, politics and governance at Ryerson University and heads their Centre for Indigenous Governance.
This article was first published on Palmater’s blog, Indigenous Nationhood.