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Assembly of First Nations chief urges Liberals to act on funding pledge to First Nations

Perry Bellegarde, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, says Ottawa must find efficient way to distribute funds to indigenous communities.

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The Liberal government has promised billions of new dollars to improve the lives of Canada's indigenous people, but the head of the Assembly of First Nations says chiefs want to know when that money will flow.

Although Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has stated his desire to "repair this most important relationship," Perry Bellegarde, the National Chief of the AFN, told The Globe and Mail in an interview on Monday that there are many ways in which the nearly one-year-old government is failing to meet that commitment.

With the new sitting of Parliament starting this week after a three-month summer break, Mr. Bellegarde said it is time for the Liberals to redouble their efforts to raise indigenous people out of poverty and to provide the kinds of supports they wrote into their campaign platform.

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"On certain issues and files, they are doing good things. On others, they're not," Mr. Bellegarde said.

The federal budget released in March allotted $8.4-billion over the next five years to improve the socioeconomic conditions in indigenous communities. Much of that money was slated to roll out toward the end of the current four-year mandate and in the year after the next vote.

Mr. Bellegarde said he and other First Nations leaders are happy with the amount pledged but, in order for it to have a meaningful impact, it's got to get out to the First Nations communities.

"All I can tell you," he said, "is I have been across Canada and I have been listening to chiefs and leaders, and everywhere I go, when I start talking about the $8.4-billion, they say, 'Well, Chief Bellegarde, yeah, that's a really high figure, but we're not seeing it out on the ground yet.' We've got to find more effective ways to get the funding flowing out."

Carolyn Bennett, the Indigenous Affairs Minister who met with Mr. Bellegarde on Monday afternoon to discuss the fiscal relationship, said she, too, travelled to many indigenous communities this summer and found a general level of satisfaction.

"They can actually see things – projects being approved and shovels in the ground and this is a very happy time," Dr. Bennett said.

Some people are impatient, she said. "The kind of money in the budget sounds like a lot of money. There's no way it was going to come out right away," Dr. Bennett said. "But stable, predictable, adequate funding, that's what we are keen to do and we are going to find out how we can do it better."

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There have been some significant irritants beside for First Nations since the Trudeau government took office.

The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal has twice called out the Liberals for failing to increase funding for child-welfare services on reserves to the same level as is provided in the rest of Canada. Correcting that disparity will be a major focus for the AFN when budget consultations take place this year, Mr. Bellegarde said.

Meanwhile, in July, two federal departments gave the approvals required for the construction of the massive Site C hydro dam on the Peace River in British Columbia. Two First Nations say the project will flood their traditional hunting, fishing and trapping grounds, as well as their ancestral burial sites.

"Never mind the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples that speaks to the right of free, prior and informed consent," Mr. Bellegarde said. "I have stated publicly [with regard to Site C] that [the Liberal cabinet ministers] are not following their own Constitution. Section 35 of Canada's Constitution says existing aboriginal and treaty rights are recognized and affirmed."

Dr. Bennett said that, in a relationship such as the one that exists between Canada and the First Nations, there will be times when the expectations of one partner or the other will not be met. "But I think that there is a real respectful relationship," she said, "where we actually, I think, are really moving forward in a good way, where people know that's what friends do. You correct one another."

The National Chief said he understands that not all of the problems facing First Nations can be corrected in a year. And he pointed out that some long-standing situations have been addressed – reserves in Northern Ontario that have gone without clean water for decades have opened new treatment facilities with help from Ottawa.

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"The relationship with the Liberal government is still strong, no question," Mr. Bellegarde said. "But is it ideal or perfect on all files? Well, obviously not."

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Gloria Galloway has been a journalist for almost 30 years. She worked at the Windsor Star, the Hamilton Spectator, the National Post, the Canadian Press and a number of small newspapers before being hired by The Globe and Mail as deputy national editor in 2001. Gloria returned to reporting two years later and joined the Ottawa bureau in 2004. More

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