On Tuesday March 22, 2016 the Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau and his Liberal Party announced their first national budget since winning the federal election in October of 2015. According to a CBC article, “Billions in new spending will be directed toward aboriginal programming, including funding to address issues including education, reserve water and child and family services, […] The commitments are considered one of the central themes of the government's first financial road map, with $8.4 billion earmarked over the next five years.”
Of course, this sounds like a lot of money, but with the crisis facing Indigenous people across Canada, is money the only solution to the challenges? Will this money ($8.4 billion over 5 years) be enough?
One important voice who is not convinced it is enough is Cindy Blackstock, the President of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society. Blackstock is also the courageous woman who took the previous Conservative government of Canada in front of the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal over its unequal funding of on and off reserve child welfare services. She proved that the government of Canada has been short changing child welfare services on reserves for years. The reason I call her courageous is because it took her nearly 10 years to finally prove the government’s negligence because the government of Canada invested hundreds of thousands of dollars to fight her every step of the way – when that money could have been going to protecting the rights and welfare of children. Sadly this is the Canada we continue to live in today.
Of the new budget Blackstock has said, "My feeling is, that bar falls far below what is required to meet the order by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal," Blackstock continued in her discussion with the CBC, “It is $71 million in year one and then $99 million in year two. If you look at the overall figure it is over $600 million, but that's back-ended." Blackstock also noted that much of the funding promised is not scheduled to be paid out until after the next election, making it unstable funding at best.
The supposed “good news” story surrounding the social spending in the Liberal party’s new budget has also had other dark clouds hanging over it.
Disaster After Disaster
On March 9, 2016 the Cross Lake First Nation in Manitoba declared a State of Emergency over suicides in their community. The First Nation suffered six suicides in two months, leaving the reserve of 8,000 people in a state of shock and grief so deep that even health workers in the community were at a loss of what to do. Apparently in the two weeks before the declaration of the State of Emergency the nursing station recorded 140 suicide attempts in only two weeks. Then on March 20, 2016 the National Post published an article titled, "‘Does it run in families like a disease?’ Five suicides in nine months open old wounds for Innu community" Another report of five First Nations people taking their own lives in only nine months. This time it was in a different community on the Innu territory of Uashat and Maliotenam in Quebec. Again, a small region with a population of 4,430.
According to statistics printed in "Manitoba Community Seeks Answers as Youth Suicides Soar" a March 11 article in the Globe & Mail: "Suicide and self-inflicted injuries are the leading cause of death for First Nations people up to the age of 44 in this country; First Nations youth are five to six times more likely to die by suicide than their non-indigenous counterparts; at 11 times the national average, suicide rates for Inuit youth are among the highest in the world."
Despite the shock and sadness that one feels when reading about these very desperate situations in Canada for Indigenous people, it is not a shock to the government or people in power who have been aware of these ongoing problems for decades. Many of the statistics are collected by the government’s own Statistics Canada. While the Canadian public needs to stop turning a blind eye to these issues, the government of Canada is what is truly guilty of offering empty words and not looking for real solutions with Indigenous people in Canada.
Then the day after the Trudeau budget announcement, there was a new breaking story: Children on the Kashechewan reserve covered in rashes and scabs. This community of 1, 800 showed pictures to the world of children and babies with rashes and scabs on their faces and bodies. However, after Health Canada doctors visited the community they declared that the situation is not a medical emergency. The doctors diagnosed the children with scabies, mild impetigo and eczema. Apparently these conditions are most likely caused or made worse by dry air, overcrowded living spaces and scratching.
However, the people of Kashechewan are very concerned that the cause is the water in their community, which has been contaminated before. Locals are demanding independent tests. However, the government and health officials continue to insist that there is nothing wrong with the water quality in Kashechewan. This is something we must pay attention to in the coming weeks.
So Trudeau’s big fancy budget, with big promises of dollars in the billions for aboriginal people is coming very late, especially for the communities of Cross Lake, Uashat and Maliotenam. Not only that, but it is unclear what consultation aboriginal people in Canada will have on how the money is spent. It is clear that despite the large sounding price tag, that there are already shortages and money that won’t be rolled out for years, while children and youth in aboriginal communities continue to bear the brunt of the government’s inaction, shortcomings and failures.
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