Canada's growing Indigenous populations put pressure on federal and provincial budgets
As reported this week in various media outlets, Ontario now has the largest population of Metis people in Canada.
All Indigenous populations—First Nation, Metis, Inuit—are increasing at a rate more than four times greater than the non-Aboriginal population. A recent Fraser Institute study revealed that between 1996 and 2011, the cumulative growth of the Metis population alone increased more than 120 per cent, well above the registered Indian population, and light years ahead of the Canadian population.
Of course, this large jump is not due solely to natural increase. Other factors are at play.
These burgeoning populations put pressure on federal and provincial budgets. For status First Nations people, government benefits include supplemental health insurance, tax exemption if the person lives on reserve, and financial assistance for higher education (in some circumstances). Metis people don’t receive many of the benefits First Nations on reserve do, but they do receive financial assistance for post-secondary education and other grants and benefits.
As noted in the Fraser study, these benefits may incentivize some people to identify as Indigenous.
Firstly, no one should exaggerate these benefits or act like First Nations have hit a windfall. Not all Indigenous people receive these benefits, and given the poverty and dysfunction on many reserves, they do not represent a huge windfall. Moreover, many First Nations have low enough incomes that they would not pay income tax even if they were not exempt.
However, they are benefits nonetheless. Legitimate Indigenous peoples have constitutionally-protected rights, and often, rights under treaty. In the past, many did not identify as Indigenous due to societal racism, so many applied for benefits later in life. But that can’t be said today. Indigenous peoples are entitled to certain rights, but not everything they receive can be classified as rights.
Often, First Nations people receive certain benefits for so long they treat them as entitlements. For example, in September, some First Nation advocates made a big deal about the federal government spending $110,000 in legal expenses to fight orthodontic treatment for a First Nation girl that cost just $6,000.
These critics, of course, misunderstand how setting a legal precedent will save the government money in the long run. (Clearly, this situation illustrated the exorbitant cost of legal fees.) The critics used words like “atrocious” and made the case seem like a human rights issue. Health Canada astutely responded that the dental care given to First Nations children is much more generous than that offered to non-Aboriginal children whose dental care is not covered under provincial health plans.
Which takes us back to burgeoning Indigenous populations in Ontario and across Canada. Growth of these populations puts pressure on government budgets, so it would be unfortunate if many self-identifying Indigenous people self-identified for financial benefit rather than due to a genuine concern for solidarity or desire to be part of a community. In the case of the Ontario Metis, many applying for status may not even be members of the established historic Metis communities in the province. We do not know.
Indigenous organizations should work with Ottawa to ensure that benefits go to the right people to relieve pressure on budgets before it gets much worse. We must align the incentives better.