Taxpayers are generous to First Nations

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Appeared in the Vancouver Province and National Post., December 2013

Canada's taxpayers have been increasingly generous to Aboriginal Canadians over the decades but that reality is not often the narrative one hears from selected First Nations leaders. Instead, the oft-stated opinion is that taxpayers should ante up ever more.

For instance, former Assembly of First Nations chief Phil Fontaine once wrote that any "argument that enough money is already being spent must be regarded as thoroughly uninformed, or worse, shockingly mean-spirited." Last year, at the Assembly of First Nations' special chiefs meeting, out of 47 approved policy resolutions, 22 resolutions asserted inadequate funding, called for additional funding and/or called for exemptions from payments and taxes normally due.

The demand for more spending on Aboriginal matters is predictable as was Fontaine's career-long rhetorical assumption that analysis is inherently hostile. However, to move beyond mere opinion and conflicting ones at that, one must start with facts and analysis if one is to improve people's lives.

Thus, let's start with some hard numbers and look at the trend-line. In the federal department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, with data gleaned from federal archives, department spending per registered First Nations person jumped to $9,056 per person by 2012 from $922 in 1950 (and the figures are already adjusted for inflation so this is an apple-to-apple comparison). That is an 882 per cent increase.

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

Provincially, data was more difficult to find but from the mid-1990s forward, here is what the numbers show: in 2012, the 10 provinces combined spent $812 per First Nations person, up 985 per cent from $75 per First Nations person in 1994.

In contrast, provincial government program spending on all citizens also rose but much more modestly, to $9,205 per person in 2012 from $7,340 in 1994, or a 25 per cent increase. Again, all numbers are adjusted for inflation (and population growth is accounted for because these are per person measurements).

Canadians should be clear on what the above numbers mean.

Some spending education expenditures on First Nations children for example would occur even if the federal government was not involved. In a different legal arrangement, First Nations kids would anyway be in provincial schools and expenses would be incurred through provincial treasuries.

So funding education through the federal department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada should not be mistakenly looked at as "extra" spending on Aboriginal matters.

Overall, here is what the numbers reveal: The trend-line over the decades, whether in Aboriginal (formerly Indian) Affairs or by provincial governments is clear: spending on Aboriginal matters, and after inflation and population growth is accounted for, is up way up, and beyond growth in government program spending on all Canadians.

In addition, examples exist of how taxpayers, via governments, are generous to Aboriginal Canadians.

Here's one and it is a an example of spending not required by treaties or by the constitution: In 2012, Health Canada spent $1.1 billion on supplementary benefits such as dental care, vision care and pharmaceutical drugs for eligible First Nations and Inuit Canadians. Most other Canadians must spend out of pocket or buy insurance for such items.

Back to the big picture: The question of whether taxpayers spend "enough" or "not enough" or "too much" money on Aboriginal matters cannot be answered with a general response.

Specific answers depend on the person, program, and First Nations reserve analyzed. Other factors such as whether tax dollars in specific instances help reduce dependency or exacerbate it, also matter to a complete answer.

But here is what is clear from the data: Whether measured in per capita amounts, or in total (as an example, adjusted for inflation, Aboriginal Affairs spending on Aboriginal matters rose to $7.9 billion in 2012 from $79 million in 1947), or relative to total government program spending, or relative to health benefits provided exclusively to First Nations and Inuit people, taxpayers have been increasingly generous to Canada's Aboriginal peoples.

Any debate over the "proper" amount of spending on Aboriginal matters in Canada should start right there: with the facts.

Mark Milke is a Senior Fellow with the Fraser Institute and author of Ever-Higher: Government spending on Canada's Aboriginals since 1947.

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