Aboriginal affairs: a way forward — or back?

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Eden Valley Reserve, south-west of Calgary (Jeff McIntosh/AP)

We’ll be doing another one of those CPAC “In Conversation With Maclean’s” events Wednesday night in Winnipeg. The subject this time is “First Nations in Canada: Is There a Way Forward?” Colleague John Geddes and I will join a formidable panel of experts. Here’s Manny Jules from the First Nations Tax Commission. Shawn Atleo will join us. Charlene Lafreniere is a city councillor in Thompson, the city with the largest aboriginal population share in Canada. Here’s a bit about what they’re up to in Thompson.

One thing I’ll be asking our guests is whether they discern any momentum in federal efforts to address the huge problems facing Canada’s aboriginal populations. The story from the Harper government this year is a decidedly mixed bag. As I noted in an optimistic column last December, annual growth in federal transfers to First Nations governments for basic services has been capped at 2% since the mid-90s. Last month’s budget didn’t touch that cap. It provides less for aboriginal education than the department will be made to cut in its internal spending, and less for housing than the government provided in the 2009 budget. Legislative changes to improve governance and financial transparency will go ahead. They may make a greater difference than any funding decision. How can we tell? The feds are diligently making it harder. The budget quietly cut off funding for the First Nations Statistical Institute and the National Aboriginal Health Organization. Soon it will be easier to claim progress without fear of contradiction. We’ll discuss whether that’s really progress.

Of course, this file is so complex that things are rarely what they seem. Will Shawn Atleo decry the shuttering of the National Aboriginal Health Organization? Maybe not: the AFN has never supported NAHO because the latter takes (sorry, took) a “pan-aboriginal” perspective. We’ll try to untangle such considerations in Winnipeg. Watch us on TV or online, or come on out if you’re in town.

(John Geddes gives a preview of the discussion here.)

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