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Federal funding not a problem for First Nations as yearly spending has risen to $9,056 per capita, study finds

Jen Gerson

National Post

Poor living conditions on native reserves are more the product of their remote locations than of insufficient increases in federal funding to those reserves, a new study suggests.

The Fraser Institute study, to be released Tuesday, says spending on Aboriginal and Indian Affairs increased by 882% in the past six decades, rising to $9,056 per capita in 2011-12. By comparison, total federal program spending for all Canadians increased by almost 400% in that same time period. This despite the fact that most aboriginal Canadians live off-reserve and, thus, have access to the same government programs that non-aboriginal Canadians do, said researcher Mark Milke, a senior fellow with the Fraser Institute.

“After we adjust per person and for inflation, the trend line is dramatically higher,” he said. “It’s not as if we haven’t been trying to solve some of the ills we see on native reserves and elsewhere. It’s not as if governments haven’t tried to throw money at the problem. They tried to throw a lot of money at the problem.”

Numerous studies have shown that the quality of life on First Nations reserves falls far short of the standard enjoyed by Canadians living elsewhere. A 2011 auditor-general report, for example, found major disparities in education and the quality of housing and drinking water. It also found that child and family services were not comparable, and that the government relied on inadequate funding mechanisms that were not timely and implemented onerous reporting burdens.

Mr. Milke suggests his study demonstrates that the problems on reserve are the result of geography, not inadequate funding.

“Every aboriginal Canadian is eligible for the benefits and social programs given to every Canadian. Any aboriginal can show up to a hospital, any aboriginal can enrol at a local school, every aboriginal Canadian can drive the same roads every Canadian does,” he said. “But we do spend extra money on aboriginal Canadians specifically.”

Further, First Nations people have access to federally provided benefits that include health insurance, which covers the cost of vision care and pharmaceuticals.

Mr. Milke acknowledged many aboriginals living on reserves face major obstacles to accessing the same basic health services that non-aboriginal Canadians do.

“Are there access issues for aboriginals and non-aboriginals living in rural areas? You bet there is. If you’re living in [Fort McMurray], you don’t have access to the cancer clinics in Calgary. But that has nothing to do with whether you’re aboriginal or non-aboriginal,” he said. “It’s a factor of geography, not ethnicity.”

First Nations people have often blamed the disparity on a lack of federal funding. No one from the Assembly of First Nations was able to speak to the Post before press time. However, a recent report published on its website points out that comparisons are not easily drawn.

Aboriginal people receive funding from the federal and, to a lesser extent, provincial governments; non-aboriginal people rely on services paid for by the federal, provincial and municipal level of governments.

In 2003-04, for example, First Nations people received $7,200 per capita from the federal government. However, that was about half what a non-aboriginal person would see in program spending from all three levels of government.

And the comparisons don’t take into consideration the fact that providing services and amenities to sparsely populated reserves in remote areas is often much more costly, according to the AFN report, the Federal Government Funding to First Nations: The Facts, the Myths, and the Way Forward.

“Reserve governments generally do not exist on their own tax base, they exist on a colonial model that gives money from Ottawa to a distant location,” Mr. Milke said. “Money flows top down, into a local community. That is the exact wrong way to design a model for sustainability.”

He also pointed to recent examples of alleged band-level fund mismanagement in Attawapiskat and Manitoba.

“First Nations governments, fundamentally, with rare exception, are set up not to be accountable. The design is to promote [a lack of] accountability for the money spent,” he said. “There’s no shortage of examples of money that has gone into aboriginal communities. The spending has been way above inflation and population growth. The next question to answer is whether that money has been well spent.”

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