By Lloyd Dolha
Regardless of the availability of resources for progressive action to address the “shameful conditions” faced by Canada’s First Nations, aboriginal issues have fallen off the federal budget priority list despite a federal surplus of almost $9 billion.
In his speech releasing this year’s budget, federal Finance Minister Ralph Goodale, acknowledged that “for too long in too many ways, Canada’s aboriginal people – our first citizens – have been last in terms of opportunity for this county.”
In responding to the finance minister’s speech, AFN National Chief Phil Fontaine said, “this budget will condemn our people to last place for a lot longer. The prime minister’s commitment to transformative change must be backed up by real investments and a real effort to work together to fix a broken system that’s holding us back.”
Released on February 23, the 2005 federal budget contained modest amounts for urgent needs such as increased housing on reserves and education. In the area of health, some First Nations programs received substantial cuts.
The 2005 budget offers only $295 million nationally for native housing or 6,400 new units over five years, despite a backlog need of some 35,000 new homes.
In the area of health, the federal budget actually moves away from sustainable First Nations health systems. Most notable is a $27 million cut in non-insured health benefits over the next three years. And the phasing out of $36 million in investments in First Nations Health information services.
Another $75 million of previously announced $400 million in funding for upstream investments and enhancement programming has been reassigned as renewal funding for the Aboriginal Diabetes Initiative.
The cuts to aboriginal health care fly in the face of a $700 million commitment over the next five years made last fall by the prime minister to address the growing crisis in aboriginal health. The budget contained no plan on how that money would be spent.
Out of the overall $5 billion set out nationally for early learning and child care, only $100 million was set aside for First Nations over the next five years.
In the area of alternative dispute resolution for residential school survivors, the budget has committed $40 million in funding, but takes no measures to make alternative dispute resolution more cost effective of results-oriented. Former students of the residential school system – alleging physical and sexual abuse as well as loss of language and culture – have filed more than 13,000 lawsuits. Only 15 percent of these cases have been resolved.
Canada’s record unmatched
And remember the money is there. Canada recorded its eighth consecutive balanced budget in 2004-05 and continues to set aside an annual reserve of $3 billion. The federal budget boasts of an economic record that is “unmatched” in the world-leading Group of Seven economies.
The amounts set aside for First Nations pale in comparison to the billions planned for a revamped military, the rebuilding of Canadian cities and Kyoto Accord commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Federal officials have been meeting with First Nations leaders for months since last September’s roundtable discussions, drafting proposals on a wide range of issues and priorities.
Next fall a national summit meeting between aboriginal leaders and federal ministers is scheduled to take place, where First Nations leaders expect to see some major funding commitments on critical issues such as housing and health care.
“The budget seems to postpone any real action on the crisis conditions facing our citizens until the First Ministers meeting in the fall of 2005 which has been sold as the culmination to the Canada-Aboriginal Peoples Roundtable process,” said the national chief.
“We brought our best ideas and our best experts to these roundtable sessions and participated in good faith with the goal of making progress, not postponing progress.”