Budget billions seek to address history of hardship
Infrastructure investments for First Nations central to $18 billion pledge
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This article was published 25/04/2021 (529 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
OTTAWA — The federal government’s plan to engineer a booming COVID-19 recovery involves channeling billions of dollars to Indigenous communities to rectify decades of socio-economic gaps, and assert autonomy in Manitoba.
“It’s large amounts, for the short term,” Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller told the Free Press.
In a wide-ranging interview, Miller said the $13 billion of new spending outlined in last Monday’s budget for specific Indigenous programming — in addition to $5 billion for COVID-19 supports — aims to put plans into action that have long been under study.
The cash is front-loaded, with the largest chunk earmarked for the coming 12 months, and gradually decreasing over the coming five years. That breaks with the common practice of governments promising huge amounts of funds that mostly flow after one or two election cycles.
At its core is a $6-billion commitment to upgrade infrastructure, largely on First Nations reserves but also in Métis and Inuit communities.
The budget gave examples ranging from airstrips to schools, but didn’t mention the need for new and repaired homes on Manitoba reserves, where cramped housing has allowed COVID-19 to thrive.
In 2016, an internal government document found it would cost $1.9 billion to solve on-reserve housing needs in Manitoba alone, and many First Nations’ populations have grown since that assessment.
Miller said the infrastructure allocation actually does include on-reserve housing, and that the idea is to let local leadership decide how best to spend those dollars.
“It’s a community-driven, priority basis — not the priorities of the Government of Canada,” Miller said.
Still, the budget’s support for off-reserve housing disappointed advocates.
Winnipeg has the most urban-Indigenous people in Canada, both proportionately and as a raw number. The Liberals launched their national housing strategy and promised a plan for this population, which is still nowhere to be seen.
Cabinet minister Dan Vandal, who handles Manitoba issues, said prior to the budget that his government must do more to address homelessness in the city.
The budget allocated $1.5 billion to retrofit unused buildings into homes, but advocates said more should have been put on the table, which Miller seems to agree with.
“Clearly there need to be more investments,” said Miller. But he said urban-Indigenous housing is extremely complex as it touches on five federal ministers’ portfolios, and involves the provincial government.
“There shouldn’t be as much worry as I’ve heard; we’re dealing with very large sums of money that need to reflect … looking at housing from a health perspective.”
The budget also pledges $600 million for mental health and wellness, which will extend existing crisis telephone lines, and launch programs to deal with substance use and suicide prevention.
The money might help bring to reality a treatment centre for the remote Island Lake region, which has grappled with a meth crisis since a 2017 wildfire evacuation to Winnipeg introduced residents to city drug-dealers.
Members of the four reserves walked 3,000 kilometres to Ottawa in 2018, demanding a treatment centre because few feel comfortable flying to Winnipeg for rehab.
Miller said he couldn’t speak to specific projects, but said the funding should help with substance-use projects that address intergenerational trauma. He hinted Ottawa might lean on the provincial government to help fund these programs.
“There is very real demand for treatment centres across Canada, and we’ve heard that loud and clear,” Miller said.
“The hard work is now; we have to pass the budget and then work with our partners … and we need provinces to be on-board with this because we’re talking about the wellness of all Canadians.”
Many expect a federal election this year, though Miller said a lot of the promised funding could still flow once the budget is passed, likely before June, including through COVID-19 programming.
Manitoba leaders gave last week’s budget a warm initial reception, though all are still studying the dozens of promises.
The Manitoba Metis Federation applauded the scope of the budget and Métis-specific programming, but said it would still like separate dollars for health services.
The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs praised the “unprecedented” scope of the budget, and urged all parties to pass the legislation quickly, but said First Nations really want cash without strings attached.
“It would be even better if the government just got out of the way and transferred our funding directly,” Grand Chief Arlen Dumas wrote, adding that the Indigenous funding pales in comparison to the overall COVID-19 supports.
Southern Grand Chief Jerry Daniels said there will still be gaps if everything in the budget is put into place, but said it was it would still have a huge impact in Manitoba.
“There are signs of a strengthened commitment by our federal treaty partner, to begin to take the necessary steps to end structural racism in federal institutions,” Daniels said Friday.
Updated on Sunday, April 25, 2021 7:03 PM CDT: Updated to correct the $13 billion pledge to $18 billion. The additional $5 billion is for COVID support in Indigenous communities.