Ontario’s Ministry of Indigenous Affairs works to build relationships with First Nations, Métis, and Inuit partners, to improve social conditions and quality of life, to increase economic opportunities, and to promote reconciliation — and, starting this year, it will have to do all that with less.
The Progressive Conservatives’ 2019 budget, unveiled Thursday, sets the ministry’s base funding for 2019-20 at $74.4 million; in 2018-19, the ministry's base funding was $81 million. (A ministry spokesperson told TVO.org that, while the base budget won't increase, the total budget could rise if additional one-time investments and settlements were paid out.)
“We are protecting what matters most by adopting bold new ways to deliver world-class services, such as health care and education, while supporting our front-line workers,” said Vic Fedeli, minister of finance and MPP for Nipissing, during his budget speech at Queen’s Park.
NDP Opposition leader Andrea Horwath took a different view, stating that the budget starves people of desperately needed funding. “What we didn’t expect was the level of irresponsibility and outright cruelty we’re seeing in this budget,” she said in a statement.
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Here’s a closer look at what Ontario’s 2019 budget contains for Indigenous peoples.
Ontario students will be getting an all-new Indigenous-studies curriculum. Although the budget doesn’t specify what that will entail, it directs $3.7 million to the development of a revised program for high-school students, to be introduced in the 2019-20 school year.
The move comes after the government’s abrupt cancellation last July of a planned curriculum rewrite, one that was intended to bring course content in line with recommendations from the Truth and Reconciliation Committee Report.
The budget also cites the success of the Indigenous Graduation Coach Program — which sees coaches mentor and advise Indigenous students — at Dryden High School, where graduation rates improved by more than 40 per cent, and indicates that it will be rolled out in select school districts across the province next year. (It did not identify which school districts will be participating in the program.)
Jobs and economic opportunities
The government plans to overhaul the Northern Ontario Internship Program, which was developed to attract young workers to the area. Previously open only to recent grads, the NOIP will be expanded to serve new entrants into the workforce, people transitioning to a new career, and the unemployed and underemployed.
The budget indicates that the government is interested in promoting economic development in the Ring of Fire, an area with chromite and nickel deposits, noting that it is committed to “reducing red tape and restrictions.” April 11, the same day the budget was released, also saw the close of the review of the repeal of the Far North Act — legislation that governs land-use planning in the region and spells out the obligations of industry to consult First Nations — which means there were no announcements about its future, though there likely will be soon.
Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler, of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, told Northern Ontario Business that members of his community “strongly oppose” the Far North Act, noting that it had been put in place without meaningful consultation. However, Fiddler also said that a repeal should not mean “uncontrolled development.” NDP MPP Sol Mamakwa has called for meaningful consultations with First Nations about any changes to the act. “Proper engagement on the Far North Act should not be rushed and involves having hearings in the Far North,” he said during question period on April 10.
A “Mining Working Group,” which will include Indigenous business leaders, will also be established to identify investment opportunities in the north.
The budget confirms that the government will move forward with resource-revenue-sharing agreements with Grand Council Treaty #3, the Wabun Tribal Council, and the Mushkegowuk Council. The province will also “continue to explore options to advance resource revenue sharing opportunities” with other Indigenous communities.
The leaders of the three councils recently told audience members at the Prospectors and Developers Association Convention that resource-revenue-sharing agreements are an important step toward reconciliation.
What’s not included
Although the budget makes reference to Indigenous people several times, it doesn’t directly indicate how the government intends to support Indigenous communities. Indigenous peoples were often mentioned only in conjunction with other groups: “for Indigenous peoples and local communities in northern Ontario,” “services for Indigenous peoples and Francophones,” and so forth.
In a press release responding to the budget, Fiddler notes that the Doug Ford government makes commitments to improving access to education, skills and training, and economic development “but is lacking in specifics for NAN First Nations.”
“We are concerned with the funding reduction for the Ministry of Indigenous Affairs and the impact that it will have on the delivery of programs and services to our First Nations,” he writes.
The budget also fails to mention many of the key issues affecting Indigenous people across the province: adequate housing, clean drinking water, keeping families together and kids in their communities (an issue of special prominence this year, given the government’s elimination of the role of child advocate), youth suicide, language revitalization, culture reclamation, and food security.