In its past three budgets, the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has made important investments to help address the critical needs facing Indigenous communities and families. These investments are laudable and long overdue, and they will go a significant way toward ensuring that Indigenous people have better housing, child and family services, education, health care and access to clean drinking water.
The 2018 budget also provided significant investments to support capacity-building and to advance self-determination and self-government — which the government rightly identified as necessary to achieving “truly transformational change.” Together, investments in healthy communities and steps to advance self-government are critical preconditions for strong communities and for what the Minister of Justice has characterized as the reconstitution and rebuilding of Indigenous nations.
However, while these steps are critical, truly transformational change is not possible while the majority of Indigenous people still live in poverty. According to data from the 2016 census, four out of five First Nations reserves have median incomes that fall below the poverty line. A recent study conducted by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives found that Indigenous children in Canada are more than twice as likely to live in poverty as non-Indigenous children.
In its most recent Aboriginal Economic Progress Report, the National Aboriginal Economic Development Board found that dependency on government transfers is increasing: between 2010 and 2015, the proportion of Indigenous people aged 15 and over who rely on government transfers as their main source of income grew from 33.8 percent to 36.5 percent.
Investments to meet basic needs and to support self-government are critical, but on their own they cannot address the conditions that have resulted in the poverty that is a fact of life in too many Indigenous communities. No community — or no nation — has ever escaped poverty by being dependent on aid and government transfers.
In his remarks to the United Nations in September 2017, Prime Minister Trudeau criticized the colonialism inherent in Canada’s history and referred to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as a touchstone by which Canada intends to shape reconciliation. The declaration affirms the rights of Indigenous peoples to “pursue their economic, social and cultural development” and, in article 21.2, affirms that states “shall take effective measures and, where appropriate, special measures to ensure continuing improvement of their economic and social conditions.”
While the effects of colonialism have been devastating to the social and physical health of our communities, one of its most nefarious objectives was the deliberate exclusion of Indigenous people from sharing in the wealth of this country.
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The time to act is now: Prime Minister Trudeau has stated his commitment to closing the socio-economic gap between Indigenous peoples and non-Indigenous Canadians, and, increasingly, Indigenous people see economic development as the path to greater independence and self-sufficiency.
A comprehensive approach is needed that should consider statutory recognition of First Nations’ jurisdiction over the use, tenure and management of reserve lands; a new fiscal relationship that includes a modern tax regime; appropriate fiscal transfers; resource revenue sharing; development of First Nations institutions that support modern governance and self-government; new investments in economic infrastructure; an Indigenous jobs strategy that better links existing investments in human capital; and new and enhanced measures to address the persistent challenge of access to capital for First Nations businesses.
A new economic development strategy should be grounded in a recognition-of-rights framework and should build upon successful best practices and innovations. The First Nations Fiscal Management Act regime has demonstrated its value as a model for the co-development of laws, policies, Indigenous-led institutions and modern fiscal arrangements. The network of Aboriginal Financial Institutions has successfully leveraged modest federal investments into $2 billion of developmental lending over the past 20 years. Innovative arrangements to support and finance infrastructure and steps to broaden Indigenous governments’ tax jurisdiction and further increase First Nations governments’ access to capital markets are possible.
The government has made important investments that will help improve outcomes in First Nations communities. A commitment to work together to develop a strategy that will truly alleviate poverty will ensure that First Nations are truly on the path to independence and self-sufficiency and that Canada is truly on the path to reconciliation.
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