Facts about Aboriginal funding in Canada

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Appeared in the Calgary Herald, June 2015

Thinking hard about history can be a useful exercise if incorrect assumptions are reformed. This was one goal of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee’s report on residential schools, which, in early June, published a 388-page summary of its forthcoming final report.

Others have already debated some assumptions in the report—healthy, given that history should never be left to past or present politics. Here, I will deal with popular beliefs about funding for First Nations people in Canada—something I have some familiarity with having traced such numbers back to the mid-20th century.

An analysis of the money is critical for four reasons.

First, in some cases, it corrects the record. The committee claims there is currently inequity in education funding for First Nation students on reserve vis-a-vis students in provincial public schools. Wrong. National on-reserve funding per student in the 2010/11 school year amounted to $13,524 compared to $11,646 per student, on average, in provincial public schools across Canada.

Second, if it’s assumed that the Canadian public through their tax dollars do not spend enough on Aboriginal matters (a chronic claim from Assembly of First Nations Grand Chief Perry Bellegarde), an improper focus on funding and not outcomes is often the result.

For example, as my colleague Ravina Bains points out, existing reserve governments often determine how elementary and secondary education dollars are spent.

That becomes a problem when parents want to send their child off-reserve, as they may be on the hook for the education cost. At that point, “parents have no recourse but to pay for their children’s education privately” as Bains has written “or, against their wishes, send their children to the on-reserve school.”

Surely in pursuit of better education outcomes, in 2015, reserve parents should not be instructed by reserve governments about which school their kids must be enrolled in, with the not-so-subtle threat of withdrawn funding if parents don’t follow politicians’ wishes.

Third, there has been no shortage of attempts to ameliorate poor outcomes on reserves and elsewhere with increased taxpayer funding.

Data gleaned from federal archives and Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada shows that spending per registered First Nations person jumped to $9,056 per person by 2012 from $922 in 1950 (the figures are adjusted for inflation so this is an apple-apple comparison). That’s an 882 per cent per capita increase in real terms.

In comparison, all federal program spending on all Canadians (including First Nations ) rose to $7,316 per person in 2012 from $1,504 per capita back in 1950—a 387 per cent increase in real terms.

Taxpayers have been increasingly generous to Canada’s Aboriginal people. Although, for the record, I’m not asserting 1950s funding was optimal; the point is that growth in per capita spending on specific First Nations programs and transfers has outpaced the general growth in general program spending for everyone. Also, remember that Aboriginal Canadians also benefit from that general spending in addition to Aboriginal-specific spending.

Lastly, Canadians have often been generous through the tax system in ways not required by treaty or the constitution. For example, some government programs exist that provide tax-funded benefits solely for First Nations people, which are unavailable to the general population.

For example, in 2013/14, Health Canada spent almost $1.1 billion on supplementary benefits such as dental care, vision care and pharmaceutical drugs for eligible First Nations and Inuit Canadians.  That coverage is not required by treaties or by constitution. And most other Canadians must spend out-of-pocket or buy insurance for such items.

It is impossible to argue successive governments have not sought to address some lagging social conditions for selected Aboriginals by using tax dollars. They have. That fact should raise many questions about, for example, a lack of choice in education or the remote location of many reserves.  Those two realities alone might better explain the plight Aboriginal Canadians in the 21st century.

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