The March 22nd federal budget contained the largest ever investment for Indigenous Peoples – $8.4 billion in new spending spread out over the next five years. But is it really enough? When you do the math, it works out to $1.68 billion per year. And upon further examination, the majority of funding doesn’t kick in until four or five years from now.
Over the last 20 years, First Nations have lost approximately $25 billion due to a two per cent funding cap imposed by a previous Liberal government. Over the past 20 years, far too many First Nations communities have only been able to manage their misery as a result of severe government underfunding.
This has led to multiple and growing crises – suicide, water, health. This has led to far too many of our children taken from their families and placed in state care. This has led to far too many of our people in prison; and far too many of our girls and women either missing or murdered.
Since last fall, the Chiefs of Ontario have presented five key areas that must be immediately addressed by the federal government:
- Ending the First Nations health crisis, which can only be addressed by fixing the water crisis, ensuring access to health services, and fixing health benefits for First Nations;
- Eliminating abject poverty through investments in housing, healthy affordable food, infrastructure, education and training;
- Immediately implementing mental health and addiction services to address the youth suicide crisis, prescription drug abuse, and mental wellness;
- Recognizing First Nations authority over land and resources, as recognized within our Treaties; and
- Access to new technologies, such as broadband internet and green energy.
Twenty years ago, in 1996, we had over 400 recommendations made by the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP). If all of those recommendations had been implemented, First Nations would now be living at the same socio-economic level as the rest of Canada.
Those recommendations that required major funding investments were ignored. In fact, the government response to RCAP was the two per cent cap. We must also deal with the shackles of the paternalistic Indian Act that is now 140 years old as of April 12, 2016. This is the same act that South Africa used as a model for apartheid.
One of RCAP’s major recommendations was to dismantle the Indian Act and replace the Indian Affairs bureaucracy with a more streamlined, responsive agency. Instead of 20 years of major investments in our own governments, economies and education systems, we have faced cutbacks and bureaucratic indifference. It is now 2016. Last year, Prime Minister Trudeau said the most important relationship for him and his government is with Indigenous Peoples. Every single minister has a mandate letter which emphasizes the need to work with Indigenous Peoples as a top priority.
I have great respect for Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett. She is committed to ending the poverty and despair that grips far too many of our communities. I recall that the biggest standing ovation she received at last December’s Special Chiefs Assembly was when she said: “Rather than take children away from their families, we need to put food in the fridge so they can stay at home.”
Well, now it’s time to put all of those words into action. Now it’s time to fulfill those mandate letters. Now it’s time to breathe life into RCAP. Now is especially the time to fully implement last year’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action. Besides a renewed relationship, this is the other major commitment made by Prime Minister Trudeau – Implementation of the TRC Calls to Action.
In many respects, the TRC is an updated RCAP for the 21st century. The majority of the Calls to Action address five critical areas that must be improved: 1. Child welfare; 2. Education; 3. Health; 4. Justice; and 5. Language and culture.
By dealing with the determinants of health, we can move onto education and economic development. Once our children and youth are healthy, they will be able to learn properly. They will finally be mentally and physically strong enough to build happy, healthy communities. Then – and only then – will First Nations break the cycle of poverty, and finally be able to secure our rightful place in Canada.
Isadore Day, Wiindawtegowinini, Assembly of First Nations, Regional Chief Ontario.