The 2016 Federal Budget: A First Step Towards Upholding Human Rights for Indigenous Peoples

Totem – Comox Valley, BC. From flickr courtesy of Kris Krug

The 2016 Federal Budget was tabled in the House of Commons by the Honourable William Francis Morneau, PC, MP Minister of Finance on March 22, 2016.  Chapter 3 – “A Better Future for Indigenous Peoples” – contains promises and commitments to Indigenous peoples across Canada, with the main focus on education, child family welfare, and infrastructure.

Although the budget of $8.4 billion over five years has widely been considered historic, there has been a mixed reaction from stakeholders regarding whether this promise is enough. The Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde in a press release said, “The budget begins to address decades of underfunding and neglect, which have perpetuated a growing gap in the quality of life between First Nations and other Canadians.” National Chief Dwight Dorey of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples reiterated this sentiment while stating that it is “a good start and a positive change in attitude from the previous government who continually slashed crucial funding.” On the other end, Grand Chief Sheila North Wilson of the Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO) told CTV News Channel that this amount is not enough to address the urgent needs of Aboriginal communities, and the president of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society (FNCFCS) Cindy Blackstock shared her disappointment in the pledge on child and family services.

So what is the main promise for Indigenous peoples? And why is it so contentious?

One of the major promises is to close the education gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students. Former Prime Minister Paul Martin has stated that Indigenous students receive approximately $3,000 per pupil less than non-Indigenous students. This lack of support has caused poor education quality, and a high school graduation rate at a mere 40%. Under the Conservative government, there was a program to fund education, however it was contingent on Indigenous support of Bill C-33, aka the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act, that never materialized. In the new budget, a no strings attached $2.6 billion has been set aside for primary and secondary education, with a third of this funding committed for the fifth year. Although this seems like an impressive amount, it is important to recognize that in 2013 the Ontario government estimated that $100 million a year in federal funding was needed to close the funding gap for their province alone.

In January, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal called to end Canada’s systematic discrimination of Indigenous children, further stating the federal government has failed to provide Indigenous children with the same quality of welfare services that exists for non-Indigenous children. FNCFCS has reported that $200 million a year is necessary to close the funding gap. With only $634 million promised ($71 million for the first year, and then an increase to $99 million in year two), the 2016 budget falls short of the necessary funds to give Indigenous children the same right to security and safety as everyone else. This is a significant human rights violation on its own, let alone accounting for the staggering number of Indigenous children affected. According to the AFN 48% of children and youth in foster care are Indigenous, while only accounting for 4.3% of the population. This leaves a substantial number of Indigenous children extremely vulnerable.

Infrastructure is another area of contention with only $554.3 million over two years for on-reserve housing and $177 million over two years for Inuit and Northern housing. Overcrowding and deteriorating housing is a major problem for many Indigenous peoples, leaving thousands without suitable, let alone safe homes. To understand the breadth of this problem internal government documents have stated it will cost $2 billion to eliminate the housing crisis just in Manitoba. Alongside the housing crisis, a CBC News investigation has revealed that two-thirds of all Indigenous communities in Canada “have been under at least one drinking water advisory at some time in the last decade”, and that $470 million a year for over ten years is needed to solve this challenge. The 2016 budget of $1.8 billion over five years for water and waste water infrastructure will not be enough to uphold Justin Trudeau’s campaign promise to end all boil-water advisories on reserves within five years. 

With such poor access to and quality of education, grave numbers of children in foster care, combined with systemic racism, and lack of necessary infrastructure, it is not surprising the United Nation’s Special Rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous peoples has reported that Canada’s Indigenous community is suffering from “distressing socio-economic conditions.” Although the 2016 budget is an improvement from previous promises, there is still much to be done in order to offer Indigenous Canadians the same access to basic human rights. The budget lends some funds for band aid solutions to social and infrastructure challenges, however it is important to stress the need to support Indigenous communities’ ability to build strong and prosperous economies. National Chief Perry Bellegarde had put it perfectly, stating that investing in Indigenous communities “will add billions to the economy and save billions more in social costs while creating a stronger, more just and prosperous country for us all.”

To ensure that we uphold consistent human rights standards for all Canadians, we must recognize the socioeconomic challenges Indigenous communities face and develop programs that address these challenges; further supporting communities’ internal capacity to build a strong and prosperous economy. The band aid funds, combined with $20 million shared between the Aboriginal Skills and Employment Training Strategy, Métis Nation Economic Development Strategy, and First Nations Finance Authority, are a step in the right direction, but are quite simply not enough.

Madeliene Merrick (1 Posts)

Madeliene Merrick is an educator, freelance writer, and human rights activist. She holds a Master’s of Political Science, and has a background in grassroots economic development and stakeholder relations. Madeliene works closely with Indigenous communities to develop educational programmes that support their internal capacity to become economically self-sufficient. Although her primary focus, Madeliene’s interests extend beyond Indigenous rights to include women’s and children’s rights, global socioeconomic development, norm diffusion, Canadian politics, and international institutions.


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