A surprisingly clear sign of progress from the First Nations summit

Ottawa will provide multi-year funding, but only to reserve communities that meet proper standards of governance
Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Shawn Atleo, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, talk as they take part in the Crown First Nations Gathering in Ottawa on Tuesday, January 24, 2012. Chiefs from across the country have gathered in Ottawa to take part in a Crown First Nations Gathering. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Few really expected any very specific progress to flow from today’s summit meeting between the Prime Minister and Aboriginal leaders, but an unexpectedly precise step forward on proper financing for reserves appears to have materialized.

The “Crown-First Nations Gathering Joint Statement” issued at the end of today’s sessions here in Ottawa includes an “Immediate Steps for Action” section. The very first item promises that “Canada and First Nations will work on a renewed relationship that is based on… movement toward a single, multi-year Government of Canada financial arrangement for First Nations with high-performing governance systems.”

The wording might sound bureaucratic, but the two underlying points are of critical importance. Ottawa will provide multi-year funding, but only to reserve communities that meet proper standards of governance.

At his closing news conference, Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan said the model for the new arrangements will be an existing process under which some 55 First Nations have taken on full control of their own land management—after satisfying the federal government that they had sufficient administrative capacity.

“We’ll go through a similar exercise with First Nations in terms of who has the capacity to enter into longer-term financial arrangements,” Duncan said.

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo touted the move as an escape from the “completely arbitrary” one-year funding Ottawa now provides to band councils. But he said arriving at “long-term, sustainable and fair” funding formulas cannot be handled by Duncan’s department alone.

“This is going to require engagement with the Department of Finance and new fiscal mechanisms,” Atleo said.

This key development hasn’t emerged out of the blue. In a report issued just as she was retiring last June, outgoing auditor general Sheila Fraser drew critical attention to the fact that most federal funding to First Nations is provided on a year-by-year basis. This system leaves band councils unable to undertake long-term projects—such as the sort of sustained multi-year housing construction that Attawapiskat so badly needed.

“This situation creates a level of uncertainty for First Nations and makes long-term planning difficult,” Fraser wrote. “A legislative base including statutory funding could remove the uncertainty that results when funding for services depends on the availability of resources.”

It’s not clear the sort of legislation Fraser was suggesting is now in the cards. But the fundamental problem that she highlighted appears at the top of the priorities list, and with it a frank acknowledgement that this advance only makes sense for reserves with, as today’s statement puts its, “high-functioning governance systems.”

If this “immediate step for action” is indeed pursued, it could be a key improvement in reserve planning and an important incentive for better band management. Turns out the summit might not have been only about good feelings and better photo-ops after all.