Aboriginals had mixed reactions to a federal budget proposal that speeds up mining project approval while allocating hundreds of millions of dollars to education, water infrastructure and other issues of major concern among the Indigenous Peoples of Canada.
Encouraged by progress in those areas but disheartened by the lack of partnership implied in some of the development measures, aboriginal leaders generally felt that the budget didn’t go nearly far enough in meeting the expectations stemming from the historic January 24 Crown–First Nations Gathering.
“It’s not all we hoped for, but it leaves room for hope,” Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo told reporters in a conference call on March 30.
The proposal would allocate $275 million over the next three years for First Nations education, $331 million for reserve water infrastructure over two years, support First Nations commercial fishing with $33.5 million, put $12 million toward addressing on-reserve domestic violence, $88 million to mitigate flooding issues, $13.6 million for consultation processes and $100 million for aboriginal health programs.
He noted that First Nations were mentioned throughout the budget and noted that in an economic climate that saw five- to 10-percent cuts in various budget areas, the ministry of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development (AAND) would be cut by 2.7 percent.
“There’s a sense that our voices are beginning to be heard,” he said, along with a nascent awareness that “the future prosperity of this country depends on the fortunes of First Nations in Canada.”
But he said it left room for interpretation.
“There is further clarification that we’re going to have to seek,” he said. “Like everyone else, we’re sifting through it.”
Other aboriginals accused Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government outright of penny-pinching, being pro-business to the exclusion of First Nation consultation and of not allocating enough money to get to the heart of indigenous issues.
“There are some items in both [budgets] that highlight a desire to advance the collective position of First Peoples,” said a statement from the Association of Iroquois and Allied Indians of both the Ontario and federal budgets, which were released on March 29. “However, both budgets still underscore areas in which each respective government is not interested in working with First Peoples on a government-to-government level or reestablishing the relationship that once existed between nations.”
Atleo too said that this was essential, and that First Nations continue to be treated like stakeholders rather than full decision-making partners in all aspects of government and that treaty implementation was not the underpinning of the budget’s logic. This was echoed in the reactions from AFN Regional Chief Angus Toulouse on behalf of the Chiefs of Ontario (COO).
“Overall this budget is disappointing,” Toulouse said in a COO statement. “When we met with Prime Minister Harper on January 24th, we were clear that piecemeal funding and lack of respect for our treaties—an approach that has long defined and damaged our relationship—is the wrong approach, it is ineffective and creates conflict. Only through the full implementation of our treaties will the poverty conditions and inequality you see in our communities be comprehensively addressed.
“Our treaties were all about sharing the land and the benefits derived from the lands,” Toulouse continued. “We will continue seeking the full implementation of our treaties and will work diligently to ensure that the needs and aspirations of our people are fulfilled.”