The leader of Canada's largest native group says his people must start voting in large numbers to force Ottawa to address the social and economic problems that plague their communities after this week's federal budget offered little for First Nations.
"It's a status-quo budget. And I always say the status quo is not acceptable," Perry Bellegarde, the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said Wednesday in an interview with The Globe and Mail. But with a federal election in the fall, Mr. Bellegarde said native people have an opportunity make their voices heard.
"If we get the First Nations vote out, we can influence 50 to 60 ridings. We've got to start mobilizing our political power as First Nations people."
Although aboriginal people face a myriad of issues including lack of access to clean water, inadequate housing and poverty, the gap is especially noticeable in education. Reserve schools have been underfunded for decades, with funding increases capped at 2 per cent, and the graduation rates are less than half of what they are in the rest of Canada.
Last year, the Conservative government was talking about removing the cap and committing $1.25-billion over three years, starting in 2016-17, for core funding for reserve schools. That fell off the table when chiefs across the country rejected the government's proposed First Nations Education Act, which they said put too much control in the hands of the Aboriginal Affairs Minister.
The budget tabled this week, instead, provides just $40-million a year for the next five years "to help support First Nations to achieve better education outcomes."
Mr. Bellegarde said he has talked with Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt on two occasions about restarting the process of negotiating a new deal for on-reserve education that would respect First Nations' jurisdiction and address the obvious disparities. But "there is no formal response to our request for that process."
When the government was asked Wednesday during the daily Question Period in the House of Commons to explain why it is not honouring the pledge it made last year to increase funding for First Nations' schools, Mr. Valcourt said his priority was to decrease the burden on taxpayers.
"Unlike the Liberals and unlike the NDP, whose mantra is increase taxes for every Canadian family," he replied, "we on this side of the House believe that they should get the money back in their pockets."
Not all aboriginal groups expressed disappointment with the budget.
Terry Audla, the president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, said in a release that he welcomed an investment of $17-million to expand the emergency response capacity in the Arctic, and $34-million for navigational warning services in the Northwest Passage and other Arctic waters. Mr. Audla also praised the government's plan to spend $5.7-million to secure new markets for Canadian seal products.