Water, child welfare and languages focus of federal budget as government aims for Indigenous reconciliation progress

Water, child welfare and languages focus of federal budget as government aims for Indigenous reconciliation progress
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The federal government is targeting boil-water advisories, child welfare and Indigenous languages in its pre-election budget — tangible files where the Liberals hope to make progress in advancing reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.

This year’s budget takes a slightly different tone from last year’s, which landed shortly after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised a new recognition of rights framework that would fundamentally redefine the relationship between the federal government and Indigenous peoples. While Budget 2018 focused on building a new fiscal relationship with First Nations and helping them move out from under the Indian Act, this year’s budget aims at specific, concrete projects, including improving Indigenous students’ access to post-secondary education and meeting the government’s long-standing commitment to lift all long-term drinking-water advisories on First Nations reserves by March 2021.

Speaking to reporters in Ottawa Tuesday, Finance Minister Bill Morneau characterized the $4.7 million in new spending on Indigenous affairs as a continuation of the government’s work since the 2015 election. “First and foremost, we have been focused on reconciliation with Indigenous peoples since day one,” he said.

Morneau pointed out that the government spent $11 billion on Indigenous peoples in 2015, which it pledges to increase to more than $17 billion in 2021.

Ottawa is planning to spend a further $739 million over five years on its signature promise to eliminate drinking-water advisories on First Nations reserves by March 2021, including on repairs to water systems and on water operator training. The spending follows a $1.8-billion commitment in 2016 and an additional $173 million in 2018. The government has lifted 80 long-term advisories since November 2015.

The budget commits a further $1.2 billion over three years to reduce service gaps between First Nations children and other children in Canada. In 2016, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal found the government was discriminating against First Nations children by underfunding Indigenous child welfare relative to the services available to non-Indigenous children. The government has promised to provide services for Indigenous children according to Jordan’s Principle, which states that children should have access to medical and mental health services as soon as they’re required, regardless of which level of government ends up covering the cost.

A delegation of youths with Nishnawbe Aski Nation met with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to discuss challenges First Nation youths in Northern Ontario. Adam Scott/Prime Minister s Office

The government is also making a large commitment to preserving Indigenous languages, with nearly $338 million over five years set aside for language revitalization projects and for the creation of the Office of the Commissioner of Indigenous Languages. The office is a key component of new Indigenous languages legislation tabled last month in the House of Commons.

Budget 2019 also includes $824 million over 10 years for post-secondary Indigenous education. Ottawa is also promising to make progress on several of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 calls to action, including the creation of National Council for Reconciliation, intended to oversee the implementation of the calls to action, the creation of an online registry of residential school cemeteries, and support for a National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.

Budget 2019 will introduce legislation to formally create the two new departments that oversee Indigenous affairs: Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada and Indigenous Services Canada. Trudeau announced the dissolution of the former Indigenous Affairs department in August 2017, building on recommendations from the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples.

That same Royal Commission also recommended that the more than 600 First Nation bands across Canada be allowed to organize into larger nations, as a means of helping Indigenous communities take jurisdiction over their own programs. This was a key component of the government’s proposed recognition of rights framework, which Trudeau announced to much fanfare in the House of Commons in February 2018. Last year’s budget included $102 million over five years to help Indigenous groups working to make that happen.

But the proposed legislative framework hit a roadblock last fall, with several Indigenous leaders claiming the government had failed to properly consult, and the government has since revealed that the new legislation will not be in place before the coming election. Budget 2019 includes no new funding for nation rebuilding.

Ottawa is moving ahead with a proposal in last year’s budget to forgive and reimburse loans from treaty negotiations, however. The government announced last year that it would cover the costs of Indigenous participation in negotiations, instead of issuing loans to be repaid by Indigenous groups. It also mentioned the possibility of forgiving and repaying past and present loans, though Budget 2018 didn’t include an estimate of how much that might cost.

Now, Ottawa has promised $1.4 billion over seven years to forgive all outstanding treaty negotiation loans and to reimburse Indigenous governments that have already repaid their loans.

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