Monday, September 22, 2014
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Funding cuts to major aboriginal political groups undermine ‘potential for progress,’ Chief Shawn Atleo says

By Michael Woods, Postmedia News

OTTAWA — The Harper government is slashing funding to several major aboriginal political organizations — including the Assembly of First Nations — a surprise move that the group’s national chief says flies in the face of the government’s stated intention to work with First Nations.

A letter from Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, sent to 43 Aboriginal representative organizations and obtained by Postmedia News, outlines changes to the way the groups will be funded, including sharp reductions in dollars.

The AFN, the national organization representing Canada’s First Nation citizens, is seeing its project funding reduced by 30 per cent in the 2013-14 fiscal year.

“The level of the cuts and the timing is a real surprise to all of our organizations, including the AFN,” the group’s National Chief Shawn Atleo said in an interview. “Our people being some of the most vulnerable already … I feel strongly these contradict, and they undermine, the potential for progress.”

Money from Aboriginal Affairs makes up about half of the AFN’s overall budget. Other organizations affected include the Metis National Council, Congress of Aboriginal Peoples and Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami.

The government said last year it would change the way it funds Aboriginal organizations. The groups were expecting cuts to project funding, but not to this extent.

“Project funding in 2013-14 and future years will be allocated only to projects that demonstrate clear and achievable outcomes and that are linked to departmental priorities,” says the letter, dated June 3. The goal, the letter says, is to promote more self-sufficient aboriginal communities and “eliminate duplication and replication of projects.”

But Atleo says he has a “deep concern” that the cuts will impact groups’ ability to help provide services in the realm of health care, clean water and other areas in communities that badly need them.

“I can’t emphasize enough that in my view, it flies in the face of … the stated intention of governments to work with First Nations,” he said. “It’s inconsistent. At a time when our people are the most vulnerable, we should be working together and there should be investments in First Nations.”

“It’s demonstrating that we have a system that’s broken and not working,” Atleo added. “We’ve got to get on with First Nations no longer just being an afterthought.”

A department spokesperson said the changes will help ensure funding is directed at essential services and programs for Aboriginal people.

“The objective is to ensure that funding is directed at priorities, such as initiatives that contribute to economic development and education,” said Aboriginal Affairs spokesperson Geneviève Guibert. “The Government will also work to eliminate the duplication of projects and to ensure that resources are focused on projects that have a positive and productive impact on the Aboriginal people as they are intended.”

“The Government values its relationship with Aboriginal Representative Organizations and is committed to continuing to work with them to advance shared priorities.”

In the coming months, the government will announce details of a dedicated project fund that the organizations will be able to access starting in 2014-15, the letter says. It says project proposals will be assessed by a national selection committee that will “look for proposals that will yield concrete results and move shared priorities forward.”

But a senior AFN official said the department hasn’t elaborated on how such a system would work.

“I can’t imagine a less effective way of delivering project funds than the way that they’re proposing, through a national selection committee,” the senior official said. “It boggles the mind that that would be effective in any way whatsoever.”

The AFN has seen its core funding reduced by more than 40 per cent over the last five years, in which time the number of staff in its Ottawa office has decreased by more than half, to about 80 people.

Atleo and Prime Minister Stephen Harper haven’t spoken since a much-publicized and controversial Jan. 11 meeting between Harper and First Nations leaders at the height of the grassroots Idle No More movement, a meeting many saw as a potential turning point in the government’s relationship with aboriginal Canadians.

At the time, the prime minister’s office said Harper and Atleo would meet again “in the coming weeks.”

Next week is the fifth anniversary of Harper’s historic apology for the Indian residential school system, a system that saw 150,000 aboriginal children over about 120 years taken from their parents. Many children experienced physical, sexual and emotional abuse and some died at the schools.

But unilateral actions on the government’s part are a departure from its words, Atleo said.

“These cuts serve only to undermine and contradict those sorts of sentiments that have been expressed in the past,” he said.

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