For crying out loud

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The new Liberal government’s first budget was presented to Parliament March 22 to high expectations from First Nations across the country. Despite reservations in some quarters, it was generally well received.

AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde felt it was “a significant first step,” and “way better than Kelowna.” The reference to the 2005 Kelowna Accord struck by the last Liberal government with Aboriginal leaders and premiers promised $5 billion in new funding over five years. The Trudeau government has now budgeted an increase of $8.4 billion over five years. Let’s see how they match up.

The Kelowna Accord promised:

$1.8 billion for education, to create school systems, train more Aboriginal teachers and identify children with special needs.

$1.6 billion for housing, including $400 million to address the need for clean water in many remote communities.

$1.315 billion for health services.

$170 million for relationships and accountability.

$200 million for economic development.

The 2016 federal budget allocates confirmed spending of:

$1.8 billion over five years to improve water quality on reserves.

$2.6 billion over five years for primary and secondary education, including what’s left from funding announced by the Conservatives in 2014.

$635 million has been allocated to strengthen the First Nation Child and Family Services program over five years.

$554.3 million over two years to address poor housing conditions.

$270 million over five years for health-care infrastructure, including repair of nursing stations.

$10.4 million over three years to for renovation and construction of shelters for victims of violence.

In addition, the Liberals eliminated the 2% cap on new funding for First Nations.

So it seems the Bellegarde is right. Let’s not forget history: the Kelowna Accord died after the Conservatives teamed up with the NDP to defeat the minority Liberal government led by Paul Martin. Harper won the subsequent election and immediately consigned the recent agreement to the dustbin. Many First Nations bands and organizations then suffered serious cuts to their funding. Legislation affecting First Nations across Canada was adopted without their consultation, participation or consent.

Even though the budget is a step forward considering how many steps back Canada’s Aboriginal Peoples have endured over the past decade, there are still complainers.

“It’s a step in the right direction – call it a down payment if you will,” said NDP leader Tom Mulcair. “But the Liberals broke their promises.” Grand Chief Sheila North Wilson of the Manitoba First Nations group MKO called the new funding only “a deposit on a historic reset.” Cindy Blackstock, president of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, felt the government didn’t step up the plate to increase funding for on-reserve child welfare services by a required minimum of $200 million a year. “It is $71 million in year one and then $99 million in year two,” she said.

A budget is never going to satisfy everyone, especially when there is only so much money in the pot. Remember that Justin Trudeau is only in his fourth month as prime minister. It’s too early to condemn his efforts. He and his government cannot be expected to solve all of Canada’s problems in that time, but I think he has made a credible start.


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