Federal Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland.
Federal Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland. Credit: CPAC Credit: CPAC

The 2023 federal budget pays lip service to what it calls “advancing Indigenous self-determination.” But, in reality, it does precious little.

What the budget means by self-determination does not include anything close to full control for Indigenous peoples over their economic and political destiny. 

In the budget the Trudeau government puts a modest $76.3 million on the table to support the “administrative capacity” of First Nations governments and tribal councils. The goal, in the budget’s words, is to “meet the needs of the communities” and deliver service and programs.

When it comes to the vital matter of economic development, the budget says “major resource and infrastructure projects can offer Indigenous communities and other Northerners good jobs, revenue, and business development opportunities.” 

It then promises two small sums, $19.4 million over four years and $1.6 million over two years, for the purpose of increasing “the participation of Indigenous Peoples and other Northerners in environmental and regulatory assessments of major projects.”

There are similar small amounts assigned to improve “the quality and consistency of benefits that Indigenous communities derive from major projects in their territories.” 

There is even vague talk about “advancing opportunities for Indigenous communities to participate as partners in major projects.”

The bottom line here is that the current federal government’s economic plan for Indigenous communities is based on what you might call crumbs from the table. 

Mammoth corporations will own and exploit the resources on traditional Indigenous lands, while the people themselves should count themselves lucky to get a small piece of the action.

That small piece could come in the form of jobs and training or even as minor shareholders. The budget announces that “the Canada Infrastructure Bank will provide loans to Indigenous communities to support them in purchasing equity stakes in infrastructure projects in which the Bank is also investing.”

We’re not even talking about a direct junior-partnership-with-industry role for Indigenous communities here. 

As the budget foresees it, Indigenous communities would be mere minor participants in some of the investments a federally-owned bank could choose to make.

It is hard to see what benefit Indigenous people might derive from such noblesse oblige arrangements.

Self-determination must include control over natural resources

If the federal government were serious about recognizing self-determination for First Nations it would affirm their untrammeled ownership and control over land and natural resources on their traditional territories.

And natural resources would include not only trees and water (and the fish and other creatures that live in it), but also oil and gas and other minerals below the earth’s surface. 

Among those below-the surface products are the critical minerals necessary to clean energy technologies. 

The Trudeau government just made a big commitment to accelerate exploitation of those minerals, but forgot to even mention the interests of Indigenous peoples when it made the announcement. 

Of course, to achieve recognition of Indigenous rights to natural resources the provinces would have to come on board. Canada’s founding document, the Constitution Act of 1867 (which we used to call the British North America Act), assigns ownership and benefit from all natural resources within their boundaries to the provinces. 

On Canadian lands and waters that are not parts of the provinces – the northern territories and the offshore – the federal government has sole ownership.

When the all-white Fathers of Confederation drafted the constitution 156 years ago, they would have considered it inconceivable to recognize any sort of rights for Indigenous peoples, whom they considered to be, at best, wards of the state, at worst, a nuisance standing in the way of territorial expansion.   

Despite all the apologies, commissions of inquiry and public hand-wringing the fundamental attitude has remained the same until the present day.

There was one occasion in recent times when a political leader had the temerity to suggest his province should share resource revenues with First Nations. 

New Democratic leader Dwayne Lingenfelter did so during the 2011 provincial election campaign in Saskatchewan. 

The NDPer made the obvious comment that while First Nations people were “here first” most live in poverty, with substandard roads, schools, and health facilities, while the province grows rich from its oil and potash.

The sitting premier in 2011, Saskatchewan Party leader Brad Wall, dismissed Lingenfelter’s suggestion out of hand. His government, he said, rejected revenue sharing with First Nations, or “any other group”. 

Tellingly, Wall added that wealth from resources was how his government could “keep taxes low.” 

For the NDP, the revenue sharing proposal was a political loser. The party dropped 11 seats in the 2011 election. Wall cruised to a landslide victory.

The next Saskatchewan NDP leader decided discretion was the better part of valour and dropped the revenue-sharing plank from the party platform.

The idea might have more traction 2023 than in 2011

The current federal government has focused more on Indigenous reconciliation than any previous government. The Trudeau team finally ended the practice of endlessly protracted litigation in court and negotiated an agreement on First Nations child welfare.

The 2023 budget also includes some big sums for much-needed services for Indigenous communities such as health and housing. There is $2 billion over 10 years, for instance, for a new Indigenous Health Equity Fund, to “address the unique challenges Indigenous Peoples face when accessing health care services.”

There is also $4 billion over seven years, for an Indigenous Housing Strategy, the details of which the government is negotiating with Indigenous partners. That money might be welcome, but the Assembly of First Nations points out that it falls well short of the $60 billion they believe is necessary “to close the gap in housing”.

For Indigenous communities, achieving direct control over and benefit from natural resources would be a huge game-changer. And while the federal government could not implement such recognition on its own, it could get the ball rolling. 

Looking back at the Saskatchewan experience of 2011, politicians might be wary of touching the issue. 

But a lot has happened in the intervening 12 years. A good portion of the Canadian public might be much more open to a full and genuine reconciliation with Indigenous people than they were more than a decade ago.

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...