Liberals pledge $9B in new money for Indigenous communities in 2024 budget

Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland answers questions about the new federal budget in Ottawa on Tuesday. © Jean-François Benoit/CBC

The Trudeau government is promising $9 billion in new cash for Indigenous communities over the next five years, a smaller spend than some past budgets but one the government says builds on past investments and maintains an upward trend.

The plan sparked mixed reviews from Indigenous leaders, with some immediately panning it as a failure and others lauding the spending of new money for Indigenous Peoples in anxious economic times.

With no single big-ticket item for Indigenous Peoples this year, ongoing Liberal commitments and previous pledges figure prominently in Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland’s latest federal budget.

“Spending on Indigenous priorities has increased significantly since 2015 (181 per cent) with spending for 2023-24 estimated to be over $30.5 billion,” the budget says.

Yet as she rose Tuesday in the House of Commons to table the plan, Freeland didn’t mention reconciliation — a topic that figured prominently in Liberal budgets past — nor did she mention Indigenous issues at an earlier news conference with reporters.

Budget 2024’s biggest line items on that front include $1.5 billion for Indigenous child and family services, $1.2 billion for First Nations kindergarten to Grade 12 education, and $1 billion for First Nations and Inuit health.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his ministers had fanned out en masse in the weeks before the budget, announcing a raft of housing and affordability measures targeting younger voters, which raised expectations among Indigenous groups as well.

The spending plan offers $918 million for Indigenous housing and community infrastructure, on top of $5 billion already available this year from past budgets, “to narrow housing and infrastructure gaps” in Indigenous communities.

That new money represents less than one per cent of the $135.1 billion the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) says is required to solve the housing crunch in First Nations communities alone, without considering Inuit and Métis needs.

At that rate, “hell will freeze over” before First Nations have access to sufficient and adequate housing, said Cathy Merrick, grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs.

“So I’m waiting for hell to freeze over for that,” said Merrick, who was in the gallery for the budget speech.

Merrick denounced the budget as a failure and a disappointment that offers just enough money to keep First Nations quiet politically but not enough to make substantial progress.

Other new cash envelopes promise $927 million for on-reserve income assistance, $640 million to support Indigenous mental health and $467 million for First Nations and Inuit-led policing, a program Canada’s auditor general recently found was poorly managed and failed to spend millions of dollars from its existing budget.

Joining Merrick outside the House of Commons in Ottawa, AFN National Chief Cindy Woodhouse Nepinak gave the budget a score of five out of 10.

“We are pleased with new investments in health and education, on income assistance in First Nations communities and of course the Indigenous loan guarantee, but there’s critical areas such as housing and policing that are unmet yet again,” she said.

National Indigenous organizations estimated it would cost more than $425 billion to close the overall gap in Indigenous infrastructure, which the Liberals have promised to do by 2030.

Woodhouse Nepinak said it was disheartening to see the Liberals “way off track” on the pledge, a comment echoed by others.

“Today’s budget fell well short of what’s required to fulfil that promise,” said Akwesasne Grand Chief Abram Benedict in a statement on behalf of the Chiefs of Ontario.

David Chartrand, president of the Manitoba Métis Federation, offered a rosier assessment of the plan.

“I’m quite pleased with the sprinkling of announcements of different segments,” he said by phone.

He did express concern for the lack of a “distinctions-base approach” that clearly signals how money is earmarked for Métis.

Natan Obed, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, also expressed some optimism about the budget, but called it sobering to see no specific reference to tuberculosis elimination efforts.

Obed had requested $131.6 million over seven years for the Liberals to deliver on a promise to eliminate tuberculosis in Inuit regions by 2030.

“I just see it as a departure from the shared commitment that that we had with the federal government,” he said.

“We don’t know what the federal government expects to happen to eliminate TB if they don’t put the necessary fiscal requirements in.”

$5B in loan guarantees for resource projects

Aside from direct cash infusions, under the banner of “getting major projects done” the budget promises to guarantee up to $5 billion in loans for Indigenous communities to participate in natural resource development and energy projects in their territories.

These loans would be provided by financial institutions or other lenders and guaranteed by the federal government, meaning Indigenous borrowers who opt in could benefit from lower interest rates, the budget says.

The promise of $5 billion in loan guarantees for natural resource projects, plus a promise to expand opt-in Indigenous tax frameworks, nudges Indigenous governments toward raising their own revenues, a policy position typically associated with the federal Conservatives.

The government is promising to bring forward legislation for what it calls an opt-in fuel, alcohol, cannabis, tobacco and vaping (FACT) sales tax framework.

The budget notably includes $57.5 million to build a mercury poisoning care home in Grassy Narrows First Nation in northern Ontario, delivering on a central 2019 Trudeau election pledge.

Seeking to allay concerns about spending cuts and “sunsetting” program cash, the budget says $2.3 billion of the new money committed over the next five years renews existing programming set to expire.

Source: CBC News