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Ottawa is “woefully” underfunding First Nations education: Ontario minister

Funding gap for First Nations programs can’t be filled by province, says Minister

Ottawa is "woefully" underfunding First Nations communities when it comes to housing, health care and education, and provinces aren’t rich enough to pick up the slack, Ontario’s aboriginal affairs minister said Wednesday. Michael Bryant said he expects the Liberals will boost funding for aboriginal affairs in next week’s provincial budget, but added the federal government has a constitutional duty to properly fund programs on Canada’s reserves."About $11 billion is spent nationally every year on providing those services," he said. "Having been to a number of those reserves, I can tell you it’s woefully inadequate."

But no province — including Ontario — can afford to fill the gap, he said. "None of the provinces are in a fiscal position to be able to backfill the federal government’s obligations in any area, let alone this," Bryant said, adding he will continue to educate his federal counterpart about the needs of Ontario’s aboriginal communities. "We can provide local information that perhaps the federal minister is unable to obtain."

The squabble between the Ontario and federal governments about First Nations funding has been a source of anxiety for at least one Aboriginal college: the First Nations Technical Institute. Recently, the federal government cut funding to the institution (that offers apprenticeships, diplomas, bachelor’s degrees, and even a master’s in partnership with Ryerson) and the province says it won’t pick up the slack to keep the school open. Ontario argues the money should come from the federal Ministry of Indian Affairs; the feds say the money should come from the provincial post-secondary education coffers.

In interviews with Maclean’s both the federal and provincial ministers have been unwilling to guarantee that it will continue to offer programs. Ontario’s Minister of Training, Colleges, and Universities John Milloy told Maclean’s Monday that he has been at meeting with FNTI and trying to meet with the Chuck Strahl, federal Minister of Indian Affairs. According to Miloy, Strahl has not responded to the requests.

Bryant has spoken out before about living conditions on Ontario reserves, saying most Canadians would be shocked to learn about the "offensive" and "unacceptable" state of housing, health care and education in some aboriginal communities. His latest outburst was dismissed by Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl.

Strahl’s spokesman Ted Yeomans said the federal government has worked closely with First Nations — investing in dozens of school projects, 25,000 new housing units and patient care — since "Minister Bryant’s federal Liberal cousins were in power."

"Minister Bryant is clearly demonstrating the difference between Liberals and Conservatives when working with First Nations peoples," Yeomans said in an e-mail. "He is simply calling for more money, while we take the position that it is how you invest with First Nations that makes a better difference and not always how much you invest."

"The Liberal answer is to hike taxes and simply dump more money into trying to address an issue — just ask Ontario taxpayers," he added, echoing criticism leveled by federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty over Ontario’s business tax rate in the recent war of words between Ontario and Ottawa.

But Premier Dalton McGuinty said funding isn’t the only way to improve the lives of Ontario aboriginals. McGuinty — who has vowed to rebuild the relationship between aboriginals and the government — said Ontario will "obviously" increase funding for its Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs.

But McGuinty said that’s just part of the solution.

"It also consists of attitude, goodwill, genuine desire, sincerity, earnestness," he said. "That’s what we’re bringing in large measure to the table, all of which has been missing in the recent past."

Opposition Leader Bob Runciman said Bryant’s comments are just evidence of more Liberal buck-passing. If Bryant’s ministry isn’t getting enough cash to improve the lives of aboriginals, then Runciman said that is a failing of the governing Liberals, not the federal Conservatives.

"This seems to be their fallback position in virtually every situation. People are sick and tired of that," Runciman said, adding their complaints have little resonance in Ottawa. "They resent being blamed for everything that goes wrong or every failing within the province of Ontario. I don’t blame them."

Ontario NDP Leader Howard Hampton said the governing Liberals have talked about building a new relationship with First Nations but have yet to follow through. Just because the federal government isn’t funding aboriginal programs adequately doesn’t let the Liberals off the hook, Hampton said.

If the Ontario Liberals are serious about improving the lives of aboriginals, Hampton said they will give Bryant’s ministry a "substantial increase" in next week’s budget rather than pointing fingers at Ottawa.

-with reports from Joey Coleman and CP

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