Feds Cut Funding to Native Groups: Decision opportunity to re-think priorities

Aboriginal Futures, Commentary, Joseph Quesnel

Derek Nepinak, Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, is frustrated over the recent cuts to aboriginal political organizations.

The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs faces an 80% cut to its core spending, going from $2.6 million to $500,000.

It’s regrettable when anyone loses a job, but this may be a time for all aboriginal organizations in Manitoba to re-focus their goals and trim down. Manitoba organizations are certainly not alone. Aboriginal Affairs announced this week it would slash 10% from the core funding to all aboriginal organizations across the country. Regional organizations will face a similar cut and a $500,000 funding cap.

This is a time for austerity and all lobby groups are facing the same pressures. Yes, they are lobby groups. They attempt to influence the direction of aboriginal policy or represent the interests of particular groups. By and large, they do not provide front-line services for First Nations in their communities.

Front-line services, especially for the vulnerable at the band level, are not being reduced, and that is what is most important for the time being. This is not to say the AMC, the Southern Chiefs Organization (SCO), and the Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO) do not bring forward important issues and represent unique regional interests. They are necessary voices, but they can be re-focused and made more relevant. They could focus their lobby efforts on the most critical issues and cut back on campaigns others might be more effective at.

In 2008, Senator Patrick Brazeau pointed out that over the last five fiscal years, five national aboriginal organizations — the Assembly of First Nations, the Inuit Tapirriit Kanatami, the Métis National Council, the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples and the Native Women’s Association of Canada — received $239 million in taxpayer money. Of that, the AFN received $136 million. And that was back in 2008.

Again, these organizations are necessary voices, but it stands to reason to ask why lobby groups are receiving so much when they do not provide front-line services.

Brazeau dared to ask how many housing, education, social services or economic development programs these same dollars would have funded if they hadn’t gone to so many lobby groups. And these groups also exclude grassroots from their leadership selection. Polling by the Frontier Centre for Public Policy shows that on the Prairies, First Nations are not happy with chief-only leadership selection processes.

There should always be a place for grassroots aboriginal organizations, but these groups lack funding. The existing organizational voice for aboriginal communities is leadership-focused and tends to speak for what Indian Act chiefs want. Perhaps this time of cuts could also lead to a wider discussion of how to bring in grassroots aboriginal voices.

Years ago, Leona Freed led the First Nations Accountability Coalition of Manitoba, which raised awareness of governance issues on First Nations. That is a very relevant cause. If Ottawa looked at the funding arrangements for aboriginal organizations, perhaps it could ensure these grassroots voices also get heard.

Regardless, these cuts are an opportunity for Manitoba’s aboriginal voice to change.