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Aboriginal lobbies must now focus

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Federal funding for native lobby groups is being cut, with money from Ottawa to flow directly to projects the Harper government will determine by priority. This, according to the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, is not a move to better direct critical dollars to improve services to First Nations; it is an attempt to muzzle groups that are often critical of federal policies affecting native people and their treaty rights.

AMC is a political lobby group, the leader of whom is elected by chiefs of Manitoba bands who make up the membership of the assembly. Last year, it received $7.7 million in federal funding, $4.5 million of which came from Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, and another $2.9 million from Health Canada.

Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan on Thursday announced core funding for national and regional groups across Canada such as AMC will be cut by 10 per cent or be capped at $500,000 a year. Funding for projects will also be reduced, Duncan said, noting the reductions will be phased in over the next couple of years to allow the groups to find new revenue sources. In total, core and project funding to First Nations political groups came to $101 million last year.

Many lobby and advocacy groups in Canada receive public funding, but those that rely heavily on government to sustain their operations are vulnerable to policy decisions and budget cuts over the ages have decimated a variety of special interest organizations.

Manitoba's First Nations advocacy groups -- AMC, Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak and the Southern Chiefs Organization -- insist they speak for native people and communities, and deliver services to alleviate the social, economic and health conditions often compared to those of third-world countries. The Harper government wants focus on fewer priorities such as education, economic development and self-sufficiency. This gets at specifics of improving graduation rates and improving employment rates to reverse a dependency strangling so many of Canada's reserves.

The AMC says it will lose 81 per cent of its core funding from Duncan's department, and half of its staff. It warns the move is really about silencing the government's critics, and that First Nations people will suffer.

Unfortunately for the AMC and similar groups, Canadians would have a tough time describing how the work of advocacy organizations has improved the lot of native people. AMC's lobby efforts -- protests, marches and press releases -- are highly visible, but its financial reporting to the federal government gives Canadians little idea of how its $7.7 million translated into direct services for native people.

Unlike the wide variety of advocacy groups at work in Manitoba, native organizations have not diversified their sources of revenue. This has made them overly dependent on the federal government and acutely vulnerable to federal policy, which now is being focused on fewer priorities, with funding tied to results.

The advocacy groups have had many years to build up the expertise that should make them prime applicants for the work Mr. Duncan says his department will continue to fund. For other pursuits, AMC and similar groups will have to find partners in other levels of government and in community and business spheres that share similar its goals.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 10, 2012 A10

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