How an old recessionary plan may be keeping Canada’s First Nations in ‘third world’ conditions

Scott Serson, a long-retired public servant delivered a tearful mea culpa in front of a senate committee meeting last February for the role he inadvertently played in creating what some have called ‘third world’ conditions in First Nations communities.

READ MORE: Many First Nations communities without access to clean drinking water

One community in particular, Shoal Lake #40 First Nation, has no road access and no clean water. It’s been on a boil water advisory for almost two decades.

The view from the ferry heading over to Shoal Lake #40. 16x9
The view from Shoal Lake #40 First Nation . 16x9
Stewart Redsky shows 16x9 around Shoal Lake #40 First Nation . 16x9

But Shoal Lake #40’s story is not unique.

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As of January 2015, 126 First Nations communities had drinking water advisories. That accounts for 20 per cent of all First Nations in Canada. An estimated 20,000 – or one in 16 – First Nations people living on a reserve are without access to running water or sewage treatment.

In September, National Chief Perry Bellgarde held a press conference to launch a new campaign called “Closing The Gap.”

“Canada ranks between 6th and 8th on the UN human development index. But if you apply the same indices to First Nations people, we fall anywhere between 63rd and 78. That’s a huge gap,” said Bellgarde.

The solution to ‘closing the gap’ to bring First Nations up to standard with the rest of Canada, is to remove an old austerity measure placed on First Nations during the recession of the 1990s.

Serson says he knows something about that austerity measure. He was the Deputy Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, the department known today as Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC). In an interview from his home in Ottawa, Serson revealed to 16×9 that as Canada was struggling with its recession, many departments were tasked with tightening budgets as a way to bring the country out of financial turmoil. Serson says he was asked to approach First Nations communities to request their help, by agreeing to a two per cent cap on infrastructure funding.

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“’If you cooperate with us, when the deficit is defeated, we will establish a new and fair rate of growth’. That was the commitment we made,” said Serson.

But that commitment was broken. In 2004, when the recession lifted, and the government started to reinvest in the provinces, it didn’t reinvest in First Nations infrastructure as promised. Instead, it kept the two per cent funding cap in place, and that cap remains today, nearly twenty years later.

Bellgarde said of the cap, “It has not kept up with inflation. It is not kept up with the rising population of our territories so there’s a call for a new fiscal framework.”

“Without the funding in place, we’re putting First Nations in jeopardy,” said Irving Leblanc, Special Advisor for Infrastructure at the Assembly of First Nations.

Bringing water infrastructure up to standard with the rest of Canada, building water treatment plants and sanitation systems, would cost an estimated $4.7 billion over ten years, according to an engineering report commissioned by Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada.

“I don’t think it’s too simplistic to say that’s about $470 million a year and we’re only getting $165 million each year to address those issues that the study addressed,” said Leblanc.

$165 million a year might sound like a lot, but it’s less than half the money required for the water infrastructure needed by First Nations communities today.

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16×9 requested an interview with AANDC and then Minister, Bernard Valcourt to find out why the two per cent cap on First Nations infrastructure spending remains in place. The department turned down our request but did provide the following information:

“The two per cent increase is not a “cap” per se, but rather an escalator for inflation and population growth, which guarantees a minimum rate of increase in spending on Aboriginal core services.”

Additional funding in successive budgets to support Aboriginal people has been provided beyond the two per cent.

16×9 asked AANDC for a breakdown of that spending. We are still waiting for a response.

Serson retired from government in 2004, but continues to volunteer and consult on indigenous issues. “This particular issue is the most important social issue facing our country,” he said. “This has been ignored for far too long, and the consequences and impact on the life chances of First Nations children.”

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Prior to being elected, Justin Trudeau claimed that if elected, he would remove the two per cent cap on First Nations infrastructure spending. Whether the new Liberal government will keep its promise and ‘close the gap’ remains to be seen.

16×9’s “As Long as the Waters Flow” airs Saturday, November 7th 2015 at 7pm.

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