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Harper government ties training to welfare for natives on reserve

Children take part in a protest on Parliament Hill on Feb. 14, 2013, calling for equal education for First Nations.

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The Harper government will provide job-training money to first nations that agree to force young people on social-assistance to take part in skills-development programs – a new initiative that critics compare to workfare.

The federal budget released Thursday provides $109-million over five years for what the government describes as "personalized skills development."

But that money will be available only to those first nations that "choose to implement mandatory participation in training for young income assistance recipients." And the budget provides more cash – $132-million over five years – to help the first nations "ensure compliance" and offer job counselling than it does for the actual training programs.

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The First Nations Job Fund is being introduced as tensions simmer over the exploitation of resources on traditional native land and as resource-development companies, which often work in regions where the population is largely aboriginal, say they are unable to find skilled workers.

In his budget speech, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty said the government wants to "ensure young recipients have the incentives necessary to gain employment."

But Derek Nepinak, the Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, said the program will just foster misconceptions and misunderstandings about the first nations.

"I hope that people stand up," said Mr. Nepinak, who pointed out that some first nations in his province have declared jurisdiction over the resources on their ancestral lands. That has created conflict, he said, "and that's going to have to escalate, unfortunately, until real results start to show themselves."

The Conservative government promised the Assembly of First Nations that it would consult extensively to create a new fiscal relationship, Mr. Nepinak said. But the skills-training program is "just appallingly poor policy and a miscalculation and a misunderstanding of what the reality is."

Thomas Mulcair, the Leader of the New Democrats, described the measure as a workfare program and a slap in the face to first nations. "It's insulting, it's paternalistic," said Mr. Mulcair. "It's a sop to [Prime Minister Stephen Harper's] Reform Party base and it plays to the worst prejudices against first nations."

Shawn Atleo, the National Chief of the AFN, has declared education the top priority for native people. The AFN points to a "discriminatory funding gap" in which first nations receive significantly less, per student, than the provinces and territories pay to educate other Canadian children.

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That gap is not addressed in this budget. The only nod to on-reserve education is the promise of a draft, later this year, of a new First Nations Education Act aimed at improving the deplorable graduation rates from reserve schools.

Mr. Atleo noted that the budget makes reference to first nations in almost every section, which he said suggests their concerns are beginning to be heard in Ottawa.

"But the investment just isn't there," Mr. Atleo said in a statement. "Gaps in critical funding and supports must be addressed – this is part of our work to transform the fiscal relationship and we will be unrelenting in achieving this as a foundation for reconciliation, justice and prosperity for first nations and for Canada."

The budget does provide an additional $5-million both this year and next for a program called Indspire, which provides scholarships and bursaries for postsecondary training and an additional million dollars a year for a program run by Cape Breton University that studies aboriginal business.

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