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Why Bill Morneau might be wearing a pair of moccasins on budget day

The National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations wants Finance Minister Bill Morneau to deliver his first budget wearing a pair of moccasins.

For Perry Bellegarde, this would be a powerful symbol – a welcome and telling riff on the tradition of finance ministers wearing brand new shoes for budget day. The gesture would send a signal to all Canadians that Justin Trudeau isn't just paying lip service to indigenous peoples.

The choice of footwear among finance ministers on budget day always makes for a good story – over the years some ministers have purposely chosen shoes or boots to reflect the theme of their budget, or promote a specific interest.

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For example, former Progressive Conservative John Crosbie famously wore seal-skin mukluks for his ill-fated 1979 budget, which brought down the shortlived Joe Clark government. Mr. Crosbie was showing his support for the sealing industry in his province of Newfoundland and Labrador.

In 1994, Paul Martin was given a pair of new work boots by then Prime Minister Jean Chrétien to underscore the heavy lifting in the government's first budget. "We have to put Canada back to work, minister of finance," said Mr. Chrétien.

In 2008, then Conservative Finance Minister Jim Flaherty resoled a pair of his shoes because he was delivering a cautious budget. Last year, his predecessor, Joe Oliver purchased a pair of black and Tory blue New Balance running shoes as he introduced a balanced budget – the first since the recession.

So, the Finance Minister purchasing or wearing a pair of soft leather moccasins for his budget would provide a lasting image.

Mr. Bellegarde is optimistic that this could just happen, characterizing the change in attitude from the previous Conservative government as "huge."

Last December, Mr. Trudeau made history by addressing the AFN leadership – the first time a sitting Prime Minister has done that.

The government also announced an inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women and girls – something that the Harper Conservative government had resisted.

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And Mr. Trudeau has also vowed to fulfill a campaign promise by scrapping the 2-per-cent funding cap for First Nations communities that has been in place for nearly two decades.

It was first put in by the Chrétien Liberal government, and limited increases to programs and services by 2 per cent a year. The result was that communities fell behind, and were not able to keep up with a growing population.

In addition to hinting about wearing moccasins, he has spoken to Mr. Morneau about developing a long-term fiscal strategy. Mr. Bellegarde is pushing for a "fiscal relations working group" between the "Crown" and First Nations.

According to Mr. Bellegarde, the Finance Minister was supportive. He adds, however: "We'll see on budget day," which is expected in March.

"This is the very first time that the AFN executive has met with the Finance Minister," notes Mr. Bellegarde. "It is the very first time that the Minister of Health came to my AFN executive meeting; very first time for the Prime Minister of Canada to come to the AFN chiefs of Canada assembly."

"A lot of firsts, you know. We have to keep building. We have to see all of these things translate into meaningful, substantial investments in the federal budget."

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His job now, he says, is to make sure their priorities don't get sidetracked.

"I think Canadians get it … maintaining the status quo is not in the best interests of Canadians, so let's make those strategic investments now in housing, in health care, in training, in mental wellness for youth … everybody wins."

Mr. Bellegarde says he is trying to exert influence on how much more money Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada's Minister Carolyn Bennett receives this year, especially given the recent Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruling, condemning the underfunding of First Nations child and family services programs.

The department spends about $8-billion a year, but the tribunal ruling adds more than $120-million, he says. In addition, the Liberal promise to make investments in First Nations education could cost about $3-billion, Mr. Bellegarde says.

For the national chief, too, a crucial area is infrastructure and how indigenous people can access the $10-billion in stimulus spending promised by the new government.

Mr. Morneau, however, is not making any promises about funding, or footwear.

"The minister's focus right now is on hearing from as many people as possible in the lead up to the next budget, and that has led to some great ideas on both substance and symbolism," Dan Lauzon, the minister's communications director said in an e-mail. "It's too early to speculate on either, but as the minister himself has said, we deeply respect and value the input of the AFN and Canada's indigenous communities, and we'll continue to work together to make Canada an even better place to call home; for everyone."

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About the Author
Ontario politics reporter

Jane Taber is a reporter at Queen’s Park. After spending three years reporting from the Atlantic, she has returned to Ontario and back to writing about her passion, politics. She spent 25 years covering Parliament Hill for the Ottawa Citizen, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. More

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