Budget 2016: PM vows 'historic investments' for First Nations
Josh Dehaas, CTVNews.ca
Published Monday, March 21, 2016 1:09PM EDT
Last Updated Monday, March 21, 2016 11:04PM EDT
On the eve of the federal budget, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canada will make “historic investments in First Nations and indigenous communities.”
Trudeau made the comments in question period in response to a question from NDP Leader Tom Mulcair.
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Mulcair said First Nations children “are living in crisis because the government doesn’t provide them with the same resources other children get.” He pointed to children in northern Ontario’s Kashechewan First Nation who he said “are suffering from horrible sores because they don’t have access to clean, safe drinking water.”
Mulcair demanded to know whether the Liberals will commit to “full-equivalent funding to end the gap on health, water and education for First Nations children.”
The prime minister promised that “historic investments” will “begin to make right (what) we have not done for so many decades in this place, in this building.”
Trudeau said the Liberals have prioritized “building strong infrastructure and support in communities across the country, particularly in those most vulnerable communities for indigenous children.”
In addition to infrastructure funding, the Liberals’ budget is expected to include:
Billions to cover Canada Child Benefit cheques that will provide as much as $6,400 tax free for middle-income families, starting this summer
Funding for green technology, including a somewhat symbolic plan to replace government limousines with electric vehicles
An expansion of Employment Insurance benefits for laid-off workers
Paying for those promises at a time when oil prices have hit the government coffers will mean a budget deficit at least three times larger than the $10-billion Trudeau promised during the election campaign.
In a speech to the Economic Club of Canada in Ottawa, interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose said she believes the Liberals' should not be pushing the country further into debt.
“Economists are now saying the Liberals will wrack up $150 billion in new debt over the next four years,” Ambrose said. “Canadians gave them an inch but I’d suggest to you they’ve taken a mile.”
Ambrose spoke to Assembly of First Nations chief Perry Bellegarde before the speech, in which she argued that too much debt will hurt job prospects for all Canadians, including indigenous people.
After the address, Bellegarde said he thinks the government would save money in the long run by bringing standards for indigenous education, water, housing and infrastructure in line with the rest of Canada.
“Invest in human capital; it makes a good business case,” said the chief. “Once you started dealing with the indigenous peoples in a fair strategic ways, it’s really good for Canada.”
Bellgarde said the Liberals have made many promises to indigenous people and he plans to “hold leaders to what they promised.”
The Liberals pledged during the election to implement all 94 recommendations from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, including ending boil water advisories on reserves within five years.
But groups like the Canadian Taxpayers Federation pointed out during the election campaign that the Liberals refused to say how much these promises would cost.
One 2011 study estimated the price tag for upgrading on-reserve water systems at $4.7 billion, plus operating costs of more than $400 million per year.
A study last year found that $2 billion was spent by the federal government between 2001 and 2013 to try to improve water systems on First Nation reserves but “little progress” was made.
The Conservatives dedicated much of their time in question period Monday to criticizing the government for the expected size of the budget deficit.
“Polls show that Canadians concerns are economic in nature,” said Ontario MP Lisa Raitt. “First jobs and second taxes and that’s what members on this side of the house have heard in the run-up to the budget that’s being presented tomorrow.”
Raitt demanded to know when Finance Minister Bill Morneau “will he actually admit that in their campaign they misled Canadians and they said the deficits are going to be moderate and indeed they are not.”
“Canadians are very concerned about massive deficits because of course they lead to increased taxes,” Raitt added.
Morneau was not in question period to respond.
In addition to Mulcair, other NDP MPs also used their time in question period to focus on the crisis declared in northern Ontario last month.
“Many children have major infections all over their bodies,” said Quebec MP Marjolaine Boutin-Sweet. “The photos of these children are troubling and socking. How can we leave our children in such a situation?”
Health Minister Jane Philpott said that she is “fully aware of the concerns” and said “a number of children have already been transported out of the community to get the medical help they need,” adding that teams are going door-to-door to look for other cases.
“There will be further steps taken to prevent further infections,” she said. “We will address the public health needs in the community as well as the social determinants of health.”
Earlier in the day, Philpott said water had been tested in Kashechewan and it was "her understanding" that the sores children are experiencing are not water related.
Northern Ontario NDP MP Charlie Angus thanked the indigenous affairs minister and the health minister for working on an emergency plan for the most severe cases.
“But they know the crisis is systemic,” he added. “The mould, the lack of clean water, the need for a proper medical system...”
Angus asked whether the minister will “commit to a timeline and a plan so we can end this state of emergency and reassure these children they can grow up in their communities healthy and hopeful and safe?”
Philpott said her government is “absolutely determined to address these gaps.”
With a report from CTV’s Richard Madan and files from The Canadian Press