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Conservatives’ federal budget 2013 leaves First Nations unimpressed, could revive Idle No More movement

Michael Woods, Postmedia News

OTTAWA – Last week’s federal budget has left a sour taste in the mouths of some First Nations leaders, who say it represents the status quo in the Conservatives’ approach to indigenous issues, and its job training program for young Aboriginal People is paternalistic.

 

“The initial response is that it’s not satisfactory. We’re disappointed,” said Roger Augustine, Assembly of First Nations Regional Chief for New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. “It wasn’t a respectful budget.”

Augustine has been a voice of moderation during the grassroots indigenous Idle No More movement, which grew in response to last year’s Conservative omnibus budget bills. He attended a controversial Jan. 11 meeting of First Nations leaders with Prime Minister Stephen Harper in Ottawa at the height of the protests, a meeting some chiefs loudly opposed.

Augustine left that meeting feeling optimistic. But he said on Sunday that progress is “nowhere near what we talked about, and what we agreed on.”

“Personally, I’m disappointed,” he said. “We took a fair amount of risk going there. I’m not sure today we can say that it was worth it.”

Budget 2013 is sprinkled with references to aboriginals and reiterates Harper’s commitment to a high-level dialogue on treaties and comprehensive claims. It also maintains funding in areas such as aboriginal justice, family violence prevention and health services on reserves.

But critics say it does not do enough to address the root causes of poor education, housing and drinking water conditions on reserves, and lament that its centerpiece for First Nations – the $241 million First Nations Job Fund – ties income assistance funding to mandatory job training for young aboriginals on reserves.

“Funding will be accessible only to those reserve communities that choose to implement mandatory participation in training for young Income Assistance recipients,” the budget says of the program.

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo has suggested that that move blindsided him. He told CBC’s The House that skills training funding has long been a priority for First Nations leaders, but this was a unilateral move on the government’s part.

“It’s not just what’s delivered, but how it’s delivered. The experience that First Nations have is not only unilateral imposition, but … one where First Nations are told how the policies should be rolled out,” he said. “That’s a pattern of paternalism that absolutely has to be broken.”

The government says the change will improve income assistance to help First Nations youth gain the skills they need to get jobs, and it’s based on existing successful pilot programs.

“The improved program will help ensure that young recipients who can work have the incentives to participate in the training necessary for them to gain employment,” said Jason MacDonald, a spokesman for Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt.

Augustine said he’s not sure what the next step is with the federal government, but indigenous peoples are growing angry and frustrated.

“I find that we’re treated like strangers,” he said. “We’re treated like people who don’t have any rights. And that, to me, is totally outrageous.”

A follow-up meeting between Atleo and Harper was to occur in the weeks following Jan. 11, and was seen as a measuring stick for progress on the issues. But Augustine said on Sunday that Atleo is “very disappointed” and will no longer try to arrange a meeting with the prime minister.

Pam Palmater, the Mi’kmaq lawyer and Ryerson University professor who is a de facto spokesperson for the Idle No More movement, said the budget shows the government will continue to act unilaterally.

“I think some people didn’t want to believe that. I think now, you couldn’t get any more direct proof,” Palmater said, adding that Canadians should expect a revival of Idle No More protests with the arrival of spring weather.

A rallying point could come as early as Monday, with the arrival on Parliament Hill of hundreds of trekkers, a group that started with six youths and an elder who left the shores of James Bay in January to make the 1,300-kilometre trek to Ottawa. The welcoming party will include Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence, who helped galvanize the Idle No More movement in December and January with her 44-day protest fast on an island near Parliament Hill.

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