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Finance Minister Bill Morneau, seen here on March 19, 2019, announced $4.7-billion in spending for Indigenous Canadians in Tuesday’s budget, with a promise to end all drinking-water advisories on reserves within two years.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Finance Minister Bill Morneau announced $4.7-billion in spending for Indigenous people in Canada in Tuesday’s budget, with a promise to end all drinking-water advisories on reserves within two years.

The Liberal government has made a priority of Indigenous issues in its past three budgets and continued that practice on Tuesday with a range of measures aimed at improving health and social services and boosting Indigenous-led businesses.

“We know that building a better Canada must – by definition – include advancing reconciliation for Indigenous peoples,” the Finance Minister said in his speech.

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Spread over six years, the budget promises nearly $1-billion to settle land claims; $1.2-billion to expand health and social services for First Nations children; and $739-million to eliminate drinking-water advisories on reserves.

The past four budgets have allocated a total of more than $21-billion to Indigenous communities, said Perry Bellegarde, National Chief for the Assembly of First Nations.

The federal budget includes new spending in a range of areas including support for first-time homebuyers, ensuring seniors are enrolled in CPP and the further advancement of reconciliation.

“Through our sustained advocacy, you see sustained investments in children and water and education,” Mr. Bellegarde said. “This is maintaining the momentum … but the needs are great and the hole is huge and we need to fill that gap that is there.”

He noted that Canada ranks sixth in the world in terms of human development – a United Nations measure of national economic and social health – while Indigenous communities taken separately would rank 63rd.

Since 2015, the government has spent nearly $2-billion to build or repair public-water systems in First Nations communities. More than 80 drinking-water advisories have been lifted and Ottawa says it is on track to eliminate all advisories in two years.

The government is also proposing to invest $333.7-million over five years to implement the Indigenous Languages Act, with $115.7-million committed every year after that. The act is currently before the House of Commons and advocates worry it may not pass before the House adjourns ahead of a fall election.

Mr. Morneau also allocated funds to address several of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action, including $126.5-million in fiscal 2020-21 for the establishment of a National Council for Reconciliation.

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Ottawa earmarked $100-million to establish an Indigenous Growth Fund to encourage investment in Indigenous businesses. The budget also proposes to expand existing programs such as Futurpreneur to support First Nations, Métis and Inuit entrepreneurs.

The growth fund will be an important financing tool for Indigenous businesses, said JP Gladu, president of the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business.

Meanwhile, the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples complained the budget ignored Indigenous people who live off reserve or in cities, despite overwhelming evidence that they are continuing to fall behind.

“Through this budget, the government is continuing to discriminate between Indigenous peoples,” CAP’s National Chief Robert Bertrand said.

With a report from Gloria Galloway in Thunder Bay

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