Government emails contradict Liberal claims on fate of First Nation education dollars



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Jorge Barrera
APTN National News
Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett’s claim the previous Conservative government spent all the money set aside for First Nation education—leaving her government in a hole when it comes to fulfilling its $2.6 billion promise on the issue—is not supported by the record.

Bennett said in the House of Commons during question period Friday the previous Conservative government of Stephen Harper “removed” money set aside for First Nation education from the federal Finance department’s books.

After repeatedly dodging APTN’s questions on the issue, Bennett finally admitted the money on which the Liberals based their $2.6 billion election education promise doesn’t exist.

“Sadly, I can confirm that the previous government removed the promised additional funding for first nations education that it had promised,” said Bennett, responding to questions from the NDP on the issue. “I am saddened by that revelation, but we are committed to making the appropriate investments to close that gap.”

However, the minister’s claim it’s the Conservative’s fault contradicts information supplied to APTN by Finance and Aboriginal Affairs (as the department was known at the time) officials in October, near the end of last year’s federal campaign.

Those departments stated there was $1.2 billion set aside in the books for First Nation education, but it would be up to the next federal government to decide what to do with the money.

“The funds remain in the fiscal framework. Following the federal election, the government will determine the best use of these funds,” said Stephanie Rubec, a spokesperson for the Department of Finance, in an Oct. 2, 2015, email.

Click to enlarge screenshot of emails

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Earlier that same day, an Aboriginal Affairs spokesperson emailed APTN a response from department bureaucrats on the First Nation education money confirming $1.2 billion still existed on the books.

“The remaining funds are still available,” said spokesperson Amanda Gordon, who was in the office of former Aboriginal affairs minister Bernard Valcourt, in an Oct. 2, 2015, email.

Months earlier in April during the lock-up for what would prove to be the last Harper federal budget, a federal Finance official repeatedly stated the $1.2 billion for First Nation education remained on the books in the “fiscal framework.”

The $1.2 billion figure was what was left over from the $1.9 billion the Harper government tied to passage of the controversial First Nation Control of First Nation Education Act which was rejected in 2014 by First Nation chiefs.

The Harper government said at the time the money would only flow if the Assembly of First Nations supported the bill.

Knowing education to be a sore political spot in the relationship between First Nations and the Harper government, the Liberals jumped out early with the $2.6 billion education promise which Prime Minister Justin Trudeau unveiled on the campaign trail last August.

The NDP pounced, accusing the Liberals of making a promise based on money that did not exist.

A close inspection of the promise revealed the Liberals were really only committing $900 million in new money which would be added to $1.7 billion the party believed the Conservatives had set aside for education.

The Liberals, it seems, made a big assumption in their promise. A large chunk of the promised money, about $500 million, came from a 4.5 per cent escalator in education funding the Conservatives also tied to passage of the ill-fated legislation on education.

As the record shows, only $1.2 billion was ever set aside for First Nation education. It remains unclear why the Liberals chose to base their election education promise on money that was never there.

Now it seems the Liberal government is trying to prepare the groundwork ahead of the next federal budget which may contain education funding that won’t match what was promised by the party to First Nation students on the campaign trail.

APTN contacted Finance Minister Bill Morneau and Bennett’s office seeking clarification on the contradictions between the record and the statement by the Indigenous Affairs minister.

A spokesperson for Finance said in an emailed statement that there was now only $241 million left in the fiscal framework.

“In budget 2015 much of this provisioned allocation was removed, but not announced,” said David Barnabe, a spokesperson for the department.

jbarrera@aptn.ca

@JorgeBarrera

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