Sean SpeerOttawa’s commitment to reconciliation with Aboriginal Canadians won’t just be measured in the dollars and cents doled out in this week’s budget, write Sean Speer and Ken Coates.

By Sean Speer and Ken Coates, March 22, 2016

Government budgets are, of course, about dollars and cents. It’s only natural that most attention will be paid to the size of the federal deficit when Bill Morneau tables his budget on Tuesday. Economists will debate his assumptions for economic growth, revenues and spending, and what it all means for the state of the country’s finances.

But budget making is also about values, ideas, and vision. It’s about the relationship between the state and the individual. It’s about creating the conditions for people to define their own goals and have the capacity to pursue them. And it’s about an agenda that promotes economic opportunity for all Canadians.

Budget making is also about values, ideas, and vision.

Which brings us to speculation that Aboriginal policy will loom large in Morneau’s budget. The Trudeau government’s focus on improving economic and social conditions for Canada’s Indigenous people is no doubt sincere. The prime minister has frequently talked, for instance, about the need for “the shared future prosperity we all deserve.”

It’s a national tragedy that Indigenous people experience much poorer economic and social outcomes, have lower life expectancies, and higher incarceration rates than the rest of the population.

We must focus on “closing the gap” as Assembly of First Nations chief Perry Bellegarde has described this sad state of affairs. The goal should be to replace these “conditions of disadvantage” with a new opportunities agenda.

What does such an agenda look like?

It must recognize that the solutions lie in less government rather than more. Top-down, Ottawa-centric policies have perpetuated the economic and social woes facing Indigenous communities. Yet successive governments have doubled down on a policy agenda that’s marked by an absence of property rights, market mechanisms, and local autonomy. It’s as much about common sense as it is dollars and cents.

Ken CoatsA positive, forward-looking agenda would see Ottawa as an enabler of Aboriginal economic development and self-sufficiency. It takes its bearings from those Indigenous communities that have taken matters into their own hands and are creating the conditions for wealth and opportunity for their people.

A change in the underlying ideas behind government policy is critical for improving the conditions for Indigenous peoples. This is not to say that government has no role. It should make investments in better services and infrastructure, greater support for early child care and learning, and stronger families. These are critical ingredients in an opportunities agenda.

Real reconciliation cannot be managed out of Ottawa.

But more fundamentally it must remove obstacles that preclude Indigenous communities from defining and pursuing their goals. The federal government should help to establish a resource revenue sharing regime and support efforts by Indigenous communities to acquire equity stakes in resource projects. It should work to streamline the land claims process to reduce uncertainty and unlock investment. And it should support Indigenous communities by bolstering their autonomy and reducing bureaucratic paper burden.

Real reconciliation cannot be managed out of Ottawa. The litany of economic and social statistics show the negative consequences of this type of thinking. Fortunately Indigenous communities across the country are taking steps to provide opportunity for their people. Federal policy should support these efforts. It’s a big idea that will have much longer effects than the passing chatter about next week’s budget.

Coates and Speer are Senior Fellows at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute and co-authors of “From a Mandate for Change to a Plan to Govern: Building a New Aboriginal Opportunities Agenda.”

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