Omission of reconciliation in federal budget speech ‘glaring’ and ‘alarming,’ First Nations leaders say

First Nations leaders are panning this year’s federal budget and demanding a renewed commitment from the Liberal government, after Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland failed to mention reconciliation in Tuesday’s budget speech.

“It’s alarming,” said National Chief Cindy Woodhouse Nepinak, head of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), at a Wednesday news conference.

The AFN represents chiefs countrywide and Woodhouse Nepinak said it will renew calls for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to organize a first ministers meeting this year to discuss a path forward on reconciliation and the longstanding issues facing First Nations.

Cathy Merrick, grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, also expressed disappointment with the “glaring omission” in the budget process.

“I was there yesterday to be able to hear — and I did not hear any words pertaining to reconciliation,” she told reporters in Ottawa.

Freeland’s 2024 budget pledges $9 billion in new cash for Indigenous Peoples, with major line items covering child and family services, education, health, housing and on-reserve income assistance.

But her 3,500-word, 40-minute speech in the House of Commons mentioned none of this. Instead, it doubled as an expansive political manifesto targeting millennial and Gen Z voters facing a housing and affordability crunch — and aggressive courting from the opposition Conservatives.

Now compare that with her speech in 2021.

Freeland, who is also deputy prime minister, mentioned Indigenous Peoples nine times when delivering that budget — which included $18 billion for Indigenous communities.

‘We’re absolutely concerned’

The change in tone sparked worry the government and country may once again turn their backs on First Nations amid increased general economic anxiety, Woodhouse Nepinak said.

“We’re absolutely concerned,” she said.

“We wouldn’t be standing here if we weren’t.”

A spokesperson for Freeland cited the 181 per cent increase in Indigenous spending since 2015, a key figure from the budget book itself, as a measure of the Liberals’ commitment.

“The deputy prime minister and the government are absolutely committed to reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples,” wrote Katherine Cuplinskas.

Despite concerns, the national chief welcomed the investments in some key areas but expressed disappointment with the lack of action on housing and infrastructure.

She told CBC Indigenous on Tuesday she gave the budget a score of five out of 10. Woodhouse Nepinak initially gave it four out of 10, but upped it a point because of the $5 billion in loan guarantees for natural resource and energy projects, she said.

The Liberals have pledged to close the Indigenous infrastructure gap by 2030, which pre-budget estimates assessed at more $425 billion for First Nation, Inuit and Métis.

A woman with a pained expression on her face raises her hand to her brow.
Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Chrystia Freeland waits for the start of a TV interview after tabling the federal budget on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on April 16, 2024. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

David Monias, chief of Pimicikamak Cree Nation, roughly 750 kilometres north of Winnipeg, told reporters 2,000 people are on a list in need of homes for his community.

“Good news for Canada, bad news for the First Nations, that’s what it comes down to,” Monias said of the budget.

At the current rate, “we will be far from having a closure of that gap by 2030,” added Brendan Mitchell, the AFN’s Newfoundland regional chief.

Ministers defend record

Others were less critical.

The Métis National Council praised the plan but did point to “critical gaps” remaining for Métis in areas like health and emergency management.

“This is a step in the right direction,” said President Cassidy Caron in a statement.

David Chartrand, president of the Manitoba Métis Federation, which is not affiliated with the national council, was similarly pleased with the budget but echoed the desire to see more Métis-specific commitments.

WATCH | First Nations chiefs react to federal budget:

Reconciliation missing in 2024 budget, warn First Nation Chiefs

6 hours ago

Duration 3:58

Chiefs Cindy Woodhouse Nepinak, Brendan Mitchell, Cathy Merrick and David Monias say the federal government failed to prioritize reconciliation and investment in Indigenous communities in the federal budget.

Natan Obed, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, which advocates for 70,000 Inuit in Canada, was encouraged with the budget but disappointed with the lack of funding for tuberculosis elimination.

In 2018, the Liberals promised to eliminate the disease in Inuit regions by 2030 and cut rates in half by 2025, a target some say they are on pace to miss

The Liberals’ tendency to make big promises and set ambitious goals but fail to spend what’s needed to meet them raises questions about what path the government is really on, Obed said.

Inuit would benefit from “a more grounded relationship” with the entire country “to ensure that we don’t waste our time, that we don’t set unrealistic expectations, and that we show the good relationship,” Obed said.

For their part, the ministers in charge of Indigenous affairs rejected the suggestion that reconciliation has dropped in priority.

“I wouldn’t say $9 billion is dropped in priority,” Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu told reporters on Wednesday.

“That’s a big investment.”

Hajdu suggested the government’s spending is still substantial despite the enormous infrastructure gap her own government promised to bridge.

“If you take $450 billion, and let’s say you divide it over 10 years, that’s still $45 billion per budget over the next 10 years,” she said.

“I think our ambitious investments have gone a long way.”

Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Gary Anandasangaree said the Liberal relationship with Indigenous Peoples remains strong.

“I think there may be a need for recalibration of the relationship, but there’s certainly no need for reset,” he said.


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