The federal Conservative government is carving close to the bone in its efforts to eliminate the deficit in advance of the next election in 2015, and this certainly does not bode well for First Nations and Aboriginal groups, which are historically the first on the chopping block when government sings from the cut and slash song book. “We are doing this without raising taxes, we are doing it without cutting transfers to hospitals, to social services, to education in the provinces…” Flaherty said. So where is it all going to come from?
Finance Minister Jim Flaherty is preparing the country for austerity, as evidenced in his comments on the upcoming budget, which will be tabled Feb. 11. The Assembly of First Nations is also preparing the ground for disappointment, sending out a bulletin in January discussing its advocacy in advance of the budget, having submitted its recommendations for investment to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance.
The AFN has communicated that the chiefs’ priorities are new fiscal arrangements and investments in education, skills and training, infrastructure, water, housing, preventing violence, policing, justice and healing programs. But very specifically, the chiefs are looking for some significant movement in addressing shortfalls in education funding to First Nations schools and support for culturally-grounded education and language programing.
“First Nations have been living under austerity conditions for too long – we know that investments in our children are investments in the future of our Nations and in the future of Canada,” reads the communique from National Chief Shawn Atleo.
But the Conservatives have bigger fish to fry. They want another majority and they’ll do whatever it takes to get it, and whatever it takes is to get Canada out of the red. They’re even willing to offend a core constituency of the Conservative Party, Canada’s veterans, with cuts to Veterans Affairs regional offices that deliver programs to the men and women in uniform.
This is no small thing. The party has put a lot of weight in their support of the military, so cuts to their services and the recent mistreatment of veterans at the heavy-hands of Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino does not go over well. As National Post columnist Christie Blatchford writes Jan. 29, “It’s an immensely sensitive issue for the government, of course, because veterans and the military are so central to the Conservative brand, and because the government is so bent on portraying itself as the soldiers’ friend.” Still, the Conservatives seem prepared to knock this group about a bit now to grab the bigger prize in 2015.
Because, let’s face it, the Conservatives have problems; a lot of problems to clear up before Canadians go back to the polls.
The Senate scandal continues to dominate and remains very possibly the cold water thrown on re-election dreams, and with Liberal Party Leader cutting loose his own Senators from caucus in a surprise move on Jan. 29, requiring them to sit as independents, the Justin Trudeau factor looms large on the horizon for Conservative success.
Not that Trudeau doesn’t have his own baggage from his party to carry around, including on the Aboriginal Affairs front. After all, didn’t former Liberal prime minister Jean Chretien in January take to the airwaves on the George Stroumboulopoulos’ show with CBC telling First Nations that they had to adapt to the new reality of the oil industry, saying Aboriginals cannot be hunters and trappers anymore.
“It’s not a way to live anymore,” he said during his discussion about Neil Young and his Honour The Treaties tour. Having been at one-time Indian Affairs minister under the now late elder Trudeau, whose legacy includes the infamous White Paper, Chretien has, if not the authority, at least a history of making such pronouncements that clearly benefit all but Aboriginal people.
Still, it’s not the Liberals calling the shots in this budget. It’s the other guys. And if the Conservatives decide all of a sudden to finance language and culture programs in the schools and remove the two per cent funding cap that has put a continuing strain on education funding since the mid-1990s, as the AFN’s communique suggest they must, it will be a stunner.
“The time is now to invest in First Nations to build a stronger country for all our people,” reads the AFN bulletin, and while we argue the time is long past, the government has so far not moved in that direction. Surely it’s a signal that in times of austerity, the investment First Nations leaders want in education may be but a faint hope.
Year after year this same message is delivered to government and year after year the message falls on deaf ears. How many times do we intend to bang our heads on this door? At the December 2013 Special Chiefs Assembly, chiefs unanimously decided to put children at the centre of their efforts. If that’s the case, then the chiefs had better be ready to answer the inevitable “What now?”
“We know what is needed for First Nations children,” wrote Atleo. “We cannot, must not and will not push this off for another generation. We must achieve this fundamental change now.”
Chief Atleo is fond of saying the status quo needs to be smashed. So, perhaps the chiefs need to be prepared to smash it.