APTN National News
OTTAWA–The federal Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development department will cut millions of dollars in spending, according to the federal budget unveiled Thursday that also committed $275 million toward improving First Nation education and $330.8 million for replacing and fixing water infrastructure on reserves.
The money for education and water, however, falls far short of the numbers recommended by two federal reports on the issues released this year. The investments will cover the gap left by funding delivered through Ottawa’s economic stimulus package which has since expired.
The federal budget, which included more First Nations specific initiatives than previous Conservative spending plans, also highlighted commitments from the federal government to pursue legislation on education and introduce private property ownership on reserves.
“Some First Nations have expressed an interest in exploring the possibility of legislation that would allow private property ownership within current reserve boundaries,” said the budget document. “Economic Action Plan 2012 announces the government’s intent to explore with interested First Nations the option of moving forward with legislation that would allow for this.”
Aboriginal Affairs will see cuts of $26 million this fiscal year, $60 million the next and $165 million the year after for a total 2.7 per cent reduction of the $6.22 billion that was put on the table for review, according to the budget.
The cuts will mean the end to the First Nations Statistical Institute, a Crown corporation, which will have all its $5 million in funding cut by 2014-2015. The department had prepared scenarios to deal with five and 10 per cent cuts to its spending as part of a government-wide belt tightening exercise.
This year’s $276 billion federal budget aims to begin a process that will see spending cut by a little over $5 billion and in the process erase the current $25 billion deficit by 2015-2016. Cuts to department spending across government will grow from $1.5 billion this fiscal year, to $3 billion the next and $5.1 billion the year after
Aboriginal Affairs faced one of the smallest cuts based on percentage, second only to Veterans Affairs, which saw a 1.1 per cent reduction.
It remains unclear exactly what programming will be erased or substantially impacted as a result of the millions of dollars in total cuts to the department. The budget document says that the department will find its savings through “restructuring, operational efficiencies and changes to business process.”
Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo said he wanted the department to focus their cuts internally, instead of on programming.
“If they are going to make cuts, they have to…have internal cuts,” said Atleo. “That they not be cuts to services that they deliver to First Nations, that are important basic needs that our poeple need that are already underfunded.”
The department also says it would simplify the application process for funding, agreements and reporting requirements along with reducing the specific claims backlog and continue devolution with the Northwest Territories.
Expectations were high among First Nations leaders for major funding commitments to emerge from the federal budget following the high-profile Crown-First Nations gathering in January and the release of an Ottawa-Assembly of First Nations sponsored report on reserve K-12 education.
The education report called on Ottawa to invest immediately to close the gap between education on reserve and in provincial schools. The report found that at least 100 schools were in desperate need of renovation or replacement and failed to provide students with a safe learning environment.
The AFN estimate it would cost at least $500 million to begin closing that gap.
While the budget committed the Conservative government to passing education legislation to set and govern standards for reserve schools by September 2014, it fell far short of expected investments.
The current budget has set aside $175 million over three years to build and improve schools.
But the actual money available for reserves schools has decreased. In 2009, under its stimulus package, the government committed $200 million over two years to spend on schools, but only spent $173 million. The rest was diverted for water projects, a federal official said.
The Conservatives, however, introduced new money into the education equation promising to invest $100 million over three years into early literacy programming and support services for reserve schools. The budget also said that money would also be used to “strengthen their relationship with provincial school systems.”
Roberta Jaimeson, president of Indspire, said the investment was a “good first step,” but not enough.
“There is a lot of work to be done,” said Jaimeson, whose organization works to improve First Nations education and training opportunities.
On the water front, the government is committing to investing $165 million a year over the next two years to build and renovate existing water and wastewater infrastructure on reserves. This is an increase over the $138 million per year commitment made in 2010.
The investment, however, falls short according to the needs outlined by a department commissioned report which found that the department needed to invest at least $1 billion to upgrade all water and wastewater systems on reserves to meet the department’s own standards.
The budget also contains a $33.5 million commitment to help First Nations fishing businesses on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts integrate into existing commercial fisheries. There is also a $27 million, two year commitment to continue the Urban Aboriginal Strategy job training projects and skills development initiatives.
The government is also putting an additional $11.9 million top up into an on-reserve family violence prevention program that will bring its total budget up to $30.4 million this year.