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Politics ᐊ ᓃᑳᓂᔅᑭᑭᓂᐧᐃᒡ ᐊᐱᑎᓰᐧᐃᓐ

Federal budget accords record amounts to Indigenous communities, but will it be enough?

BY Ben Powless May 9, 2021

The federal government’s 2021 budget committed a record $18 billion over five years to address issues and make improvements in Indigenous communities. However, many Indigenous leaders are still saying those investments don’t go far enough. 

In her budget speech April 19, Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland said the Liberal government has made progress “in righting the historic wrongs in Canada’s relationship with Indigenous Peoples. But we still have a lot of work ahead.”

Adopted by the House of Commons April 26, the budget commits $4.3 billion over four years to an Indigenous Community Infrastructure Fund to finance projects ranging from roads to homes, with another $1.7 billion over five years for ongoing costs and maintenance. 

A key detail in the budget promises legislation that would allow Indigenous governments to implement fuel, alcohol, tobacco or cannabis sales taxes within their communities.

Meanwhile, $1.2 billion will support pandemic-response efforts, with another $598 million over three years to be directed to an Indigenous mental health and wellness strategy – half of what the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) requested. 

The budget also alluded do the death of Joyce Echaquan by committing $127 million to address racism in the healthcare system and improve Indigenous access.

In other initiatives:

  • $2.2 billion is set aside to implement the calls to justice by the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. 
  • $2.5 billion will fund Indigenous early learning and daycare.
  • $1.2 billion will support Indigenous education.
  • $1 billion for reforms and ongoing support in child and family services.
  • $74 million for an Indigenous justice strategy to address the systemic overrepresentation of Indigenous Peoples in the justice system and improve their access to justice.
  • $861 million is pledged to improve policing in Indigenous communities, including investments in the First Nations Policing Program and funds to repair, replace and renovate policing facilities. 
  • $275 million is committed for culture and language-based programs, with the aim of strengthening Indigenous languages, funding Indigenous heritage initiatives, and funding cultural spaces, sports and recreational activities, and programs for Indigenous women and girls. 

The budget focused extensively on climate change, with $17 billion pledged towards a green recovery program and to push for net-zero emissions by 2050. To that end, $40 million is committed to developing clean power in the North, and another $163 million for Northern food security. 

AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde acknowledged in statement that the investments will help First Nations recover from the pandemic, support efforts to end violence against Indigenous women and girls, improve First Nations policing, and reform child and family services.

However, Bellegarde says the amounts pledged don’t meet infrastructure needs, including housing, water, sewage and roads. 

“We will not close the gap unless we see sustained investments in proper health care, education and training, water, infrastructure, and housing – basic necessities that too many of our people do not have access to and as a result, continue to hold back First Nations and all of Canada,” Bellegarde said. 

Grand Chief Abel Bosum concurred, adding that, “The budget proposes some $18 billion in measures for Indigenous communities. As Minister Marc Miller has stated, the headline number may appear large, but it must be set against the historic underfunding of Indigenous communities.

Infrastructure commitments may be insufficient, Bosum noted. “Without infrastructure, the communities will not be able to build anything else, let alone housing,” he said.

Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador Chief Ghislain Picard added in a statement that normal budget allotments do not meet the needs for new housing in communities. 

“Housing is a major priority for the First Nations Chiefs in Quebec,” Picard insisted. “Any announcement of additional funds to help our communities build more housing is obviously welcomed when we know that 10,000 new units are needed to meet the needs.” 

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Ben Powless is a Kanien'kehá:ka and Anishnabek writer and photographer, currently living in Ottawa. He has a degree in Human Rights, Indigenous and Environmental Studies from Carleton University.