Hill Dispatches

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Karl Nerenberg has been reporting on federal politics from Parliament Hill for rabble.ca since September, 2011. In his long career, he has won numerous awards as a broadcaster and documentary filmmaker.

Budget 2013: Welcome to workfare for First Nations in Canada

| March 22, 2013
Budget 2013: Welcome to workfare for First Nations in Canada

There is no new money in the Harper government’s 2013 budget for Aboriginal primary and secondary education.

Instead, the 2013 budget promises to have a First Nations Education Act in place by September 2014, nearly a year and a half from now.

Almost two years ago, the Auditor General put out a thorough and scathing analysis of the dysfunctional and inadequate funding arrangements for First Nations schools.

In response, the Deputy Minister of Aboriginal Affairs, Michael Wernick, told the Commons Public Accounts Committee, in the fall of 2011, that he was sure we would see First Nations education legislation in 2012.

 Well, 2012 has come and gone.

There were no commitments on First Nations education in the 2012 budget.

Instead that budget included massive, radical and unprecedented roll-backs of federal environmental oversight and protection and other measures that struck such fear in the hearts of First Nations communities that the Idle No More movement was born.

Government will 'explore mechanisms'

We're now almost two years from the landmark 2011 Auditor General's report, the last of a long series on First Nations matters.

In addition, for more than a year, the government has had in hand the report of the National Panel on First Nations Education that was chaired by the CEO of YMCA Canada, Scott Haldane. And it has had the benefit of the exhaustive report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, which dealt extensively with education, for nearly two decades.

Wernick and others have indicated that education is the number one priority for this government when it comes to Aboriginal Affairs.

And yet one does not get any sense of urgency from this government.

The 2013 budget's only -- and rather indirect -- response to the Auditor General's root and branch critique of the non-statutory, "contribution agreement" financing system for First Nations schooling is to say that the government is "committed to exploring mechanisms to ensure stable, predictable and sustainable funding for First nations ... education."

When it comes to paving the way for resource companies to get their tractors, excavators, blasting equipment and drills onto First Nations claimed lands, the government is prepared to move with extraordinary haste.

But when it comes to repairing a broken system for funding First Nations' schools, the response is to "explore mechanisms," a bureaucratic way of saying: "Don't call us, we'll call you."

Personalized job training

 The budget did express some urgency on one matter concerning First Nations people.

Budget 2013 includes a provision called: "Investing in Training for On-Reserve Income Assistance Recipients."

This is, in essence, a form of "workfare."

The government wants to ensure that young Aboriginal recipients of income assistance "who can work have the incentive to participate in the training necessary for them to gain employment."

The budget sets up something called a First Nations Job Fund – a total of a little more than $20 million a year for five years. That fund is supposed to provide personalized training for "these recipients." And, the budget document adds, "their income assistance benefits will depend on participation in training as per current practice in their province of residence."

The government has allocated a greater sum, more than $25 million per year, for the enforcement aspect of all this  -- to "ensure compliance among on-reserve Income-Assistance recipients."

Settlement of land claims, recognition of First Nation rights to their traditional territories, negotiations to engage First Nations' partnership in resource development, a concerted effort (as recommended years ago by the Royal Commission) to develop local economies by marrying traditional to market-focused activities: all of these are, like the long-awaited reforms to education, way back on the back burner.

Compulsory work for social assistance: now that’s a priority.

First Nations will not have to wait years for that one, it’s coming very soon.

Near silence from First Nations on 2013 budget

 In the one day since the 2013 budget was tabled all kinds of so-called stakeholder groups have expressed at least qualified support.

Journalists’ in-boxes have been filled with news releases from the likes of the Association of University and Colleges of Canada to the Canadian Propane Association, praising this or that provision of the 2013 budget.

It seems to be a compulsory exercise of bending one’s knee to the fickle and frequently vindictive federal government.

Any group or sector that believes it might reap some benefit from budget 2013, in any way, is quick to publicly express its gratitude.

It seems that folks have got the message. This government does not give out goodies for nothing. It expects full, and fulsomely expressed, credit.

The union movement is none too happy, as might be expected, and has not been reluctant to express disapproval of the 2013 budget. Even there, however, Ken Georgetti, President of the Canadian Labour Congress, has made a point of giving credit to the Harper government, where he evidently thinks credit is due, on the job training initiative.

From Aboriginal groups, however, there has been near total silence.

The Assembly of First Nations did not make any public statement on the 2013 budget. National Chief Sean Atleo evidently wants to avoid burning whatever bridges he may still have to the Harper government.

The only Aboriginal response came from the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs.

Shortly after the budget was tabled, Manitoba Grand Chief Derek Nepinak had this to say:

“This status quo budget ensures the rich keep getting rich with tax credits and incentives that generally do not help First Nations individuals or communities. . . [It] means a continuation of escalating poverty and a continuing failure to meet the basic needs of families in the communities.  Announcements on re-allocated funding for skills and trade development tied to compulsory program changes is nothing short of coercion and racialized policy implementation. . .”

'La bonne guerre' for the Conservatives?

For his part, the new Minister of Aboriginal Affairs, Bernard Valcourt, has been strangely silent on the 2013 budget.

To respond to Chief Nepinak, the government sent the Minister’s Parliamentary Secretary, Greg Rickford, to the microphone

When asked if the new social assistance provision is a form of workfare, Rickford ducked. All he would say is:

“. . .we’ve identified the fact that there’s an especially high unemployment rate with young Aboriginals. So we are working on a strategy that’s consistent with what many . . . provinces do. This will give First Nation communities a chance to make decisions around improving the access of young Aboriginal Canadians to personalized job training that has a job in the line of sight with that training.”

The government has not uttered a word as to where those jobs "in the line of sight" will come from.

Nor was this new measure preceded by any consultation, in any form, with First Nations communities.

But, as with the tough on crime and the tough on public servants benefits agendas, taking on First Nations social assistance may not be particularly sound policy, but it is probably good box office with the Harper Conservatives’ base.

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