Writing in the Ottawa Citizen, Calgary Herald and other Postmedia papers, MLI managing director Brian Lee Crowley notes that headline-grabbing figures about federal spending on Aboriginal Affairs mean little when one considers decades of neglect and mistreatment of Aboriginal peoples, and the high costs of delivering services to remote regions. Moreover, "Government spending, rather than a proxy for generosity, however, is actually a measure of our failure to open real opportunities for Aboriginals", writes Crowley.

Brian Lee Crowley, December 20, 2013

The Fraser Institute got mileage out of its recent survey of government spending on Aboriginal people. Headline-grabbing numbers — per capita spending on Aboriginal Affairs has risen 880 per cent from 1950 to the present! — certainly attract attention, but add little to the debate about what governments can and should do with and for Aboriginal people.

Yes, government spending has risen dramatically. Using 1950 as a baseline ensures the comparison captures the rapid expansion of state welfare programming — residential schools, settlement on reserves, income assistance and a major expansion of health care services (not restricted to Aboriginal people, of course) — after the Second World War. Government spending has escalated because governments did a lot more to Aboriginal people, often without their approval.

As my friend and colleague, University of Saskatchewan Canada Research Chair Ken Coates, reminds me however, the past 40 years or so have seen a revolution in the relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians that replaced decades of neglect and worse. There are new programs and services, from support for post-secondary education to the negotiation and settlement of Aboriginal land and legal claims, which were not part of the pre-1970s picture. Aboriginal legal victories produced judgments that must now be honoured. Federal-provincial gamesmanship has finally started to give way to a greater recognition by provinces of their responsibilities, but catching up is not cheap. Moreover the fallout of unhappy experiences with treaty implementation, residential schools and long neglect mean that Aboriginal people frequently want to administer their own programs, requiring expensive capacity-creation. Nor do most Aboriginal governments have access to the own-source tax revenues that mostly finance other governments' activities.

At a very practical level, as the Fraser Institute recognizes, the high cost of delivering services to remote reserve communities adds significantly to spending. Providing the most basic services, such as safe drinking water, is hugely higher in northern Ontario fly-in communities than in the south.

Government spending, rather than a proxy for generosity, however, is actually a measure of our failure to open real opportunities for Aboriginals. Money spent on income support, medical intervention and socio-cultural crises would decline dramatically (and has already done so) when local Aboriginal economies improve. Popular prejudice aside, most Aboriginal communities are determined to shake off the oppressive culture of welfare dependency.

To understand it properly, spending on Aboriginal people needs to be compared, not with spending on the average Canadian, but spending on Canadians similarly situated to Aboriginal people. Well-designed programs concentrate money where the need is greatest. In this regard, as the funding for education and basic infrastructure shows, federal spending is too low, leaving many Aboriginal Canadians in conditions other citizens would find appalling. By this accounting, government spending is less than adequate, particularly for neglected northern regions.

Canada has long striven to ensure that all Canadians have reasonably comparable opportunities. While Prince Edward Island lacks Alberta's economic strength, federal transfers help the two provinces provide residents with a rough equality of opportunity, a situation that does not hold for the vast majority of Aboriginal Canadians, even with the current level of federal government spending. The Scandinavian countries do a much better job than does Canada of providing equality of opportunity for Indigenous people and those living in isolated regions.

As we honour our commitments under treaties and the Constitution, government spending has certainly risen. Out of context, that rise can look huge and disproportionate. Placed against the challenge of providing real opportunities for Aboriginal Canadians, it looks very different. No doubt some of the money is poorly spent; of vastly more importance, however, the combination of historical damage to Aboriginal communities, Indian Act constraints, misplaced government intervention decades ago, and the realities of location, have left governments and Aboriginal communities struggling to secure what other Canadians take for granted.

One national politician, speaking about the debate over funding for Aboriginal education, said that money was not the solution, but that solutions cost money. Presenting statistics on Aboriginal funding outside this essential context adds little to our understanding of one of the most important challenges facing Canada today.

As Aboriginal people respond to resource development opportunities, become more entrepreneurial, complete more post-secondary training and education and enter the workforce in greater numbers, government spending on Aboriginal affairs will moderate. The evidence is already there for those with eyes to see. Until then, creating the possibility for Aboriginal Canadians to enjoy even remotely comparable opportunities with the rest of Canadians will continue to be expensive, difficult and frustrating.

But the cost must be measured against the size of the task and the important progress already made.

Brian Lee Crowley (twitter.com/brianleecrowley) is the Managing Director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an independent non-partisan public policy think tank in Ottawa: www.macdonaldlaurier.ca

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