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budget 2013

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo addresses a news conference in Ottawa, Jan.10, 2013.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

The head of Canada's largest aboriginal group says the fact that a controversial job-training measure was written into the federal budget without his people's input demonstrates the government's unwillingness to treat first nations as equal partners.

Shawn Atleo, the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, says the big problem with programs like the First Nations Job Fund is the way they are conceived by governments and then rolled out without any two-way dialogue. Despite more than a year of government promises for increased consultation, and despite mounting first-nations frustration as demonstrated by the rise of protest groups like Idle No More, there is still a top-down approach, Mr. Atleo said.

"That's got to change," he said in an interview with The Globe and Mail.

Like other Canadians, Mr. Atleo said he first heard what was in the budget, including the measures that directly affect first-nations people, when it was delivered on Thursday by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty. That does not suggest a willingness on the part of the government to enter into a partnership with Canada's aboriginal peoples, he said.

"We have to keep pressing that the way forward is for first nations to be full partners in how these programs are designed and delivered," he said. There must be a new way of acting "so first nations aren't caught between successive governments telling us how we should be going about implementing these programs and the opposition parties telling us how we should feel about the implementation."

As for the job fund itself, some critics have dismissed it as a form of workfare. And first-nations officials said the compulsory nature of the wording of the budget documents, which include such language as "mandatory participation" and "compliance," sound heavy-handed. But the AFN is waiting to learn the details.

Resolutions of the AFN National General Assembly that date back 15 years have asked for changes to social assistance delivery and urged that it be used to promote skills development. And 45 pilot projects that were run by the Aboriginal Affairs department over the past three years to move first-nations youth off welfare rolls and into the work force were largely deemed a success. Many native communities have said they wanted to see them expanded.

But the response by the Conservative government in its budget this week was not written as first-nations leaders had envisioned.

While $109-million will be provided over the next five years to train unemployed first-nations youth, the budget papers say communities that participate will be required to force all of the young welfare recipients in their communities to take part. And the government is devoting more money – $132-million – to counselling and compliance than for the training itself.

But the AFN says that might not be a bad thing if first nations can use the funds to design and deliver programs in ways that will be successful.

Mr. Atleo said he was encouraged by the fact that issues affecting indigenous peoples were interwoven through the budget. "I think what's different at this juncture is we have a level of consciousness like never before."

There is frustration on the part of the first nations that the government made no move to address the long-standing deficit in funding for education. That is something that the AFN demands every year, Mr. Atleo said. But "we've got a shared recognition that's growing that we need to invest in indigenous young people," he said. "The outstanding question is how to accomplish that."

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