As expected, the Assembly of First Nations was first out of the gate offering glowing praise for this Liberal government’s federal budget, followed shortly thereafter by the Metis National Council and Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami — the three male-dominated national Aboriginal organizations. Their organizations have seen substantial increases in funding for their political organizations in recent years.
Meanwhile, the Native Women’s Association of Canada — the only political organization representing Indigenous women at the national level — issued its own press release criticizing the government for failing Indigenous women. They accused the federal government of, once again, ignoring the pressing needs of Indigenous women and in so doing, not only hampering reconciliation but breaching their core human rights. NWAC is especially aggrieved about this lack of funding for Indigenous women and families, given the urgent need to address murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls.
The exclusion of Indigenous women and girls as a priority in this federal budget is a glaring example of the ongoing racism and sexism that is so deeply embedded in Canada’s laws, policies, practices and institutions — the very same racism and sexism the Liberal government claims to be against.
When the federal government announced the National Inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls in 2016, the former Liberal Minister for the Status of Women Patty Hadju spoke of the urgent need to address the longstanding racism and sexism embedded in Canada’s institutions. Yet, this urgent policy objective is not reflected in any substantive way in federal budget 2019.
In fact, there are no funds allocated for a comprehensive plan to address violence against women generally, and no funds for a targeted comprehensive of plan of action to address violence against Indigenous women and girls specifically. Indigenous and women’s organizations have called on Canada to take comprehensive action now to implement recommendations from the United Nations treaty bodies to reduce murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls before the national inquiry’s report is released.
The National Inquiry’s report is due out in less than a month and there is no budget set aside to implement whatever recommendations come from that report either. The limited funds for commemoration seems not only inadequate, but also premature given that the crisis has not abated. Where is the urgent and sustained help for the many families deeply impacted by the abuse, exploitation, trafficking, disappearances and murders of thousands of Indigenous women and girls?
A particularly shocking exclusion from the budget is the lack of funding for First Nations child and family services to address the crisis of First Nations children in foster care. Former Minister of Indigenous Services Jane Philpott called the staggering statistics related to First Nation kids in care a “humanitarian crisis” — comparing it to the residential school system. She pledged to work with First Nations to address the critical need for funding to prevent apprehensions and address the root causes of over-representation, which include conditions of poverty.
This glaring omission from the budget is confounding given the fact that Parliament had previously committed to targeted funding to accompany Bill C-92 An Act respecting First Nations, Inuit and Metis children, youth and families, which already been introduced in Parliament. Although the federal government promised significant funding to support Bill C-92 — there is no specified funding either in the bill or the budget. Not a single dollar has been allocated to support First Nations develop their own laws and institutions specific to child and family services, hire and train staff, as well as provide the much-needed wrap-around social, educational and health services to families in need as advocated in the Spirit Bear Plan.
Dr. Cindy Blackstock, the head of the First Nation Child and Family Caring Society welcomed the additional funding for Jordan’s Principle, however explained that it does not go far enough and many children — like non-status Indian children are still excluded. Jordan’s Principle is a child-first principle which aims to ensure First Nation children can access all public services in a culturally-appropriate way, without any delays or hurdles because they are First Nations.
The federal budget pledges $1.2 billion over three years. However, the flat funding does not take into account population growth over the funded years, or the rising cost of inflation. There are also no additional funds to address the thousands of First Nation children who will be newly entitled to Indian status as a result of Bill S-3 An Act to Amend the Indian Act (elimination of sex-based inequities in registration) or from the revised unstated paternity policy in relation to registration. Both of these issues are the result of the federal government losing two court cases (Descheneaux and Gehl) on discrimination against First Nations women and children.
Yet, despite the legal obligation to provide funding, none has been identified in this budget. This limited funding is not an act of reconciliation. The federal has been dragged to this point — kicking and screaming — by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, with no less than five non-compliance orders for failing to end discrimination in funding of First Nation children in care. So, while the extra funding is welcome, it is not a “gift.”
A particularly disturbing omission is the lack of targeted funding for First Nation women and their descendants who would newly entitled to Indian status under Bill S-3. The bill has been in place for a year and will add thousands to the registration list, yet no new funds have been identified for education, health or housing for individuals or First Nations. This is despite the fact that the United Nations just agreed with Sharon McIvor that the Indian Act still discriminates against the descendants of First Nations women who married-out, and directed Canada to provide full reparation. This means registering them and providing much-needed social programs.
Similarly, there is no targeted funding to address the increase in registration due to Lynn Gehl’s successful court case against Canada for it’s discriminatory unstated paternity policy. At every turn, First Nations women and children are forced to wait for justice and are denied their basic human rights and access to the same programs and services available to their fathers, brothers and uncles.
One of the most under-served categories of First Nations are those living off-reserve. Approximately 33 per cent of First Nations live off-reserve in Canada, and a disproportionate number of families are headed by single Indigenous mothers. Metis and Inuit don’t live on reserves at all — therefore the majority of Indigenous peoples live off-reserve. The amount allocated in the budget is a mere $60 million over 5 years to help fund off-reserve organizations like native friendship centres. That is barely $10 million a year — nowhere near what is needed to address urgent housing, education, and health needs for more than 800,000 Indigenous peoples living off-reserve — let alone the growing homelessness crisis plaguing Indigenous peoples. Niigaan Sinclair reports in the Winnipeg Free Press that the chronic under-funding is made worse by the fact that federal bureaucrats and other consultants and contractors suck up nearly 50 per cent of all funding appropriated by Parliament for First Nations. With three departments now directly responsible for Indigenous and Northern Affairs, who is to say whether First Nations will see much of this funding at all, let alone Indigenous women and children.
While there are many other problems with federal budget 2019, the most glaring omission is the exclusion of Indigenous women and children. Back in 2016, the Liberal government promised a gender-based analysis for future budgets. Yet, this budget lacks a gender-based, human rights–based and Indigenous rights–based analysis that focuses on not just policy objectives like reconciliation, but concrete domestic and international legal obligations.
There is no mention of returning lands and resources back to First Nations, no mention of a financial plan in relation to treaty implementation or how the federal government will ensure Indigenous women’s voices are at the many negotiating tables they fund. This budget is a disgrace and does little to address any of the pressing Indigenous issues impacting Indigenous women and children like kids in care, murdered and missing Indigenous women, over-incarceration, homelessness, unequal access to Indian status, poverty and poor health outcomes. Trudeau makes good use of flowery speeches and tearful apologies to Indigenous peoples, but has left Indigenous women and children far behind — again.
Perhaps Prime Minister Trudeau should give some Indigenous women a call and figure out how to amend the budget so it better reflects the law in this country. At least, that’s what a feminist prime minister would do.
Dr. Pamela D. Palmater is a Mi’kmaw lawyer and member of the Eel River Bar First Nation in New Brunswick. She teaches Indigenous law, politics and governance at Ryerson University and heads Ryerson’s Centre for Indigenous Governance.
Image: Adam Scotti/PMO
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