Ottawa budget creates $241M workfare program for First Nations youth

OTTAWA – The federal budget is sprinkled with initiatives to put aboriginal people to work, but a long-promised wholesale reform of First Nations education is still gummed up in negotiations.

The biggest chunk of new money will finance a workfare program for young people on reserves.

Making good on a promise made last year, this year’s budget puts $241 million over five years into training programs for young people collecting income assistance.

The money is divided into two.

The First Nations job fund will get $109 million to provide personalized job training for welfare recipients. Benefits cheques will be dependent on participation in the program.

The rest of the money will go into setting up the services necessary to deliver such a program, including compliance measures and counselling.

“Funding will be accessible only to those reserve communities that choose to implement mandatory participation in training for young income assistance recipients,” the budget warns.

The government also allocates $100 million over two years to improve housing in Nunavut, with the money flowing through Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp.

But what has been touted as the big fix for chronic aboriginal poverty is still a way off. Federal, provincial and First Nations governments have generally agreed that the education system needs an overhaul and better financing, but movement on that consensus has been held up by deep conflict between Ottawa and many First Nations who want a greater say in the process.

Instead of allocating more money for education, the budget commits to more consultation and passing legislation by September 2014 to build a more accountable system that would resemble regional school boards.

The Assembly of First Nations figures bands need about $3 billion to build schools and make up for the shortfall in education. Last year, Ottawa put $275 million over three years toward aboriginal education.

The budget also includes a smattering of initiatives designed to deal with outstanding issues that have stymied large-scale economic development on reserves.

It puts $54 million over two years into renewed efforts to quickly resolve specific land claims, a goal for both the government and First Nations. For years, investors, band members and ministers alike have complained about the uncertainty over who owns what.

It also puts $9 million over two years into a new First Nations land management regime in order to help bands figure out ways to use the new land arrangement to set up new businesses.

And it increases police budgets, responding to complaints from many First Nations that their police forces are so underfunded that many reserves are unsafe for both the officers and the residents.

The budget also commits $52 million over two years for health services — especially mental health services — for First Nations and Inuit communities.

And it allocates a small amount of the Building Canada Fund — $155 million over 10 years — to First Nations infrastructure.