First Nations people, especially those living on reserve, view the federal budget much differently from non-Natives. For us, it’s like a federal budget and the equivalent of a provincial budget put together. This is a consequence of the division of powers that sees the federal government delivering many provincial services on reserves, such as health care.

Because of the unique and outsized role Ottawa has in the lives of First Nations people, we look for action and attention on every issue, such as one would expect from a provincial budget. For example, no one could imagine a Quebec provincial budget that failed to mention health care one year or economic growth the next.

In this context, the omission of First Nations child welfare from this budget is enough to sour the whole document. First Nations child welfare advocate Cindy Blackstock expressed this disappointment in her comments to the CBC after the budget was released: “[There is] nothing in there despite three legal orders for the government to comply and make sure that this generation of First Nations children isn’t unnecessarily removed from their families because of Canada’s inequitable funding [. . .] I think it’s a sad day for the nation.”

Half of all children in state care are Indigenous (a number greater than at the height of the residential school era), and unequal funding of non-Indigenous people as compared with Indigenous people is seen as a major cause for this situation. A connection can be made between the number of Indigenous children in foster care and the missing and murdered Indigenous women crisis, the inquest into the deaths of seven First Nations youth underway in Thunder Bay, and the deaths of First Nations youth who have “aged out” of the foster care system in BC.

This issue is a high priority for First Nations people, one many of us thought was resolved with the January 2016 Human Rights Tribunal ruling on the matter. That ruling found that First Nations child welfare funding levels, which are 22 percent to 34 percent below what is available to non-Natives, are “discriminatory.”

Adding insult to injury, not only did the Trudeau government fail to address First Nations child welfare in the budget, but on the same day it was released, officials of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada appeared before a Canadian Human Rights Tribunal non-compliance hearing to argue that it was not bound by the tribunal’s decision, and could not be compelled to provide equal levels of funding to First Nations children.

Budget 2017 doesn’t treat us as innovators, but as hewers of wood, drawers of welfare cheques.

The budget was not without other insults, such as leaving First Nations out of the “Nation of Innovators” section, and confining discussion of our economic growth to natural resources and tourism. Budget 2017 doesn’t treat us as innovators, but as hewers of wood, drawers of welfare cheques.

And yet, taking into account the low standard by which First Nations judge our treatment by the federal government, this budget represented progress. During the Harper era, the key word for understanding Conservative government policy toward First Nations was unilateralism. Measures such as Budget 2013’s First Nations Job Fund, which tied access to welfare to participation in job training, did not align with mainstream First Nations’ thinking or with First Nations’ priorities.

In a 2013 interview with APTN, then national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Shawn Atleo, commented on another unilateral move by the Harper government, a bill requiring First Nations bands to publicly disclose the pay and expenses of their politicians: “We do not support unilateralism that further entrenches us in a system that doesn’t work for our people or Canada [. . .] The answers lie in our communities and with our citizens, not with more control from Ottawa . . . Canada needs to listen and to act.”

This is where the Trudeau government is different: there is little in the Indigenous portions of the 2017 budget that didn’t originate with Indigenous peoples. The government can be said to have “listened” and, to a lesser extent, to have “acted.”

It’s positive to see the change in the conversation between Indigenous peoples and Canada. We’re now arguing about degree, about speed, about what was left out.

It’s positive to see the change in the conversation between Indigenous peoples and Canada. We’re now arguing about degree, about speed, about what was left out — and we don’t have to waste our time and energy fighting pernicious and unwanted legislation like the Conservatives’ First Nations Financial Transparency Act.

First Nations, Métis, and Inuit can move forward with this budget for now, but I don’t believe this progress will last for long. My concern comes from what I believe is a fatal flaw in the Liberals’ nation-to-nation agenda, as described in the budget. In principle, a renewed nation-to-nation partnership is a good thing; Canada is finally trying to live up to its obligations. However, many First Nations people see the nation-to-nation relationship as one between the band and the federal government, or even between certain elements of Indigenous civil society and the federal government. Few if any Indigenous people see that relationship vested in the Assembly of First Nations. However, this budget sets the stage for an AFN-led nation-to-nation partnership:

A renewed nation-to-nation relationship with Indigenous Peoples will not happen overnight. While important first steps have been taken, the Government recognizes the hard work with Indigenous partners that lies ahead and remains committed to act.

In December 2016, the Prime Minister announced the establishment of new permanent bilateral mechanisms with the Assembly of First Nations and self-governing First Nations, the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and self-governing Inuit groups, and the Métis National Council and its governing members. The Prime Minister and key Ministers will meet annually with these groups to develop policy on shared priorities and monitor progress.

On April 21, in Ottawa, the AFN and the Trudeau government will sign a document called the “Memorandum of Understanding to Support First Nations Jurisdiction and Sovereignty and a Renewed Crown-First Nations Relationship.” The signing of this document is the most important event in Canada that no one is talking about. It’s the context to the budget’s promises to Indigenous peoples. The MOU will create cabinet-level discussions, ministerial round tables, a decolonization directorate — all set by negotiations between the AFN, equivalent Métis and Inuit organizations, and the federal government.

The budget makes a promise to work with the AFN but makes no mention of a nation-to-nation relationship with bands. The MOU also neglects to mention bands, save for their right to opt out of any agreements the AFN and federal government reach.

The Trudeau government’s decision to treat the AFN as the sole legitimate representative of First Nations people is undemocratic and risky. Contrary to what many non-Native people may think, the AFN isn’t the “Parliament of First Nations People”; at best, it’s the “Association of Canadian Municipalities” of First Nations people. It’s a body elected solely by chiefs (some of whom may have never been elected themselves). Far from being a representative body, during the IdleNoMore protests, the AFN found itself in conflict with the “Native Street.”

Working with the AFN is the easier road for the federal government, one that Stephen Harper himself took during his brief moments of détente with First Nations. But it’s not a true nation-to-nation relationship. The partnership between First Nations and Canada isn’t a steady or a solid one. While this budget — in spite of its glaring omissions and deferred funding — is promising, the nation-to-nation path Trudeau is locking in with this budget seems tailor-made to disrupt and obstruct any future progress.

Photo: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks with the media after meeting with Manitoba Metis Federation President David Chartrand, back left to right, Assembly of First Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde President of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami Natan Obed on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Thursday December 15, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

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Robert Jago
Robert Jago is a Montreal-based businessperson and First Nations activist. He is a member of the Nooksack Indian Tribe.

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