Among the more than $100 billion dollars of new spending promised over the next five years in Canada’s first pandemic budget is something remarkable: the nation’s largest investment in Indigenous communities in history.
Second behind a $30-billion investment in child care — and ahead of funding for the environment, wage subsidies, and long-term care homes — Indigenous communities will see nearly $18 billion over five years towards dozens of new initiatives designed to address long-standing inequities and to help them recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The last time a Canadian government was this invested in Indigenous communities was 2005, with the Kelowna Accord.
Negotiated over 18 months between the Liberal government led by prime minister Paul Martin, all provincial and territorial governments, and five national Indigenous organizations, a $5-billion deal was reached to "close the gap" in areas such as health, housing, education and infrastructure.
In many ways, the Kelowna Accord was Martin’s political death knell.
Canadians had no interest in addressing long-standing issues in Indigenous communities (even if it was obvious Canada created them). The first thing Tory PM Stephen Harper did when he entered office was cancel the agreement.
It set the tone for nearly a decade, where problems that would have been addressed by the accord became exponentially dire, desperate, and expensive.
Zoom ahead to the 2015 Liberal government of Justin Trudeau, who made "renewing relationships with Indigenous communities" his catchphrase, even banking his legacy on it.
His government has been arguably the most invested in Indigenous communities in Canadian history; implementing major initiatives such as the Indigenous Languages Act, National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, and new child welfare policy.
In fact, the first Trudeau-led budget in 2016 committed more than $8-billion over five years to Indigenous communities — an unprecedented, Kelowna Accord-like amount.
Then, reality hit, and Trudeau’s government acted exactly how all federal governments act when it comes to Indigenous rights, lands, and the law.
Namely, it mostly ignored them.
A few lowlights: Trudeau’s government has trampled on Indigenous rights to get resource projects done (see: Wet’suwet’en or anything to do with the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion), failed to "solve" on-reserve water issues as promised, and incarceration rates, poverty, and inequities facing Indigenous children are at all-time highs.
Plus the Jody Wilson-Raybould/SNC Lavalin conflict, which reeked of the same paternalism, racism, and misogyny Indigenous Peoples regularly experience from police, doctors, and politicians.
This Jekyll-and-Hyde treatment of Indigenous communities has resulted in an equally complicated relationship with Indigenous Peoples.
It contributed to a minority government for Trudeau in 2019 — and an expectation the prime minister would take his foot off the gas on the issue.
Cue the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic.
After many public demands, the Trudeau government has done a decent job supporting Indigenous communities, particularly in the vaccine rollout. More than 50 per cent of all on-reserve First Nations and northern Inuit adults have received at least one vaccination shot — four times higher than the Canadian average — and the disease is eradicated in hot spots where the test positivity rate was once as high as 40 per cent.
There is much more work to do — Métis and non-status and off-reserve First Nations people continue to suffer, for example — but this success was highlighted by Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland during her budget speech Monday.
"We still have a lot of work ahead," Freeland remarked, before announcing how the $18 billion in new Indigenous investments break down.
There’s $2.2 billion to address the calls for justice in the murdered and missing inquiry final report, $1.4 billion to support First Nations and Inuit health care, $1.2 billion for Indigenous educational initiatives, $1 billion for child and family services, $861 million to improve policing in Indigenous communities, and $275 million for culture- and language-based programming.
The biggest ticket item is $6 billion ($1 billion more than the entire Kelowna Accord) for infrastructure, which has got to finally address the issue of 59 boil-water advisories in First Nations communities.
However, Monday’s entire budget doesn’t work if the Liberals lose what is expected to be a fall election. Indigenous Peoples know whatever Canadians governments promise their communities is dumped the second new leadership enters.
That’s not an endorsement, but a reality check.
Niigaan Sinclair is Anishinaabe and is a columnist at the Winnipeg Free Press.