OTTAWA – LEADERS LEDGER – In addition to working hard to bring some transparency and accountability to the Harper Government over their massive 400-plus page budget bill that is being rammed quickly through parliament I also spent time working on several issues related to First Nations communities in Canada this past week.
As I mentioned in last week’s column, the current federal budget is much more than a mere fiscal and economic document. It also proposes fundamental changes to our retirement and Old Age Security program by making Canadians under 54 work two years longer, amending or eliminating 11 environmental laws, and reducing healthcare transfer payments to the provinces by more than $31 billion among other things. If you want to learn more about how the budget is likely to affect you and your family, then please visit http://budget2012.ndp.ca/. You can read about all of the changes for yourself and let us know what you think as we continue our work in parliament.
While I was working on the budget for much of this week I was also made aware of a suicide epidemic currently unfolding in a British Columbia community, a 20 year old toxic spill that has not been cleaned up on the Big Grassy First Nation on Lake of the Woods, and the de-funding of a successful and cost effective program for First Nation children in Thunder Bay. On one issue, I would say that the Conservatives got it right but on the other two they have absolutely abandoned the affected communities.
Epidemics, be they housing or clean water or suicide, are unfortunately nothing new to First Nation’s communities. In one community, the Cowichen Tribes of British Columbia, the number of suicide alerts (yes, they need and have such things) has more than doubled over the last five years and between just February and April this year four men in the community of 4,500 took their own lives. The Chief of the Cowichen Tribes has asked for federal help, and to her credit, Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq appears to be taking the issue seriously and has offered assistance.
I will be writing to the Minister to ask that a national strategy be implemented as communities like Pikangikum near Kenora, which has seen a 20 year long suicide epidemic, require ongoing federal assistance. In the meantime, Ms. Aglukkaq must be commended for her swift response to the Cowichen crisis.
I wish I could say that the federal government’s swift reaction to the Cowichen Nations crisis was the rule, but sadly it is the rare exception.
This week I also learned of a toxic spill on Big Grassy First Nation that occurred in 1992, but has so far remained untreated.
The money for the clean-up of this site, and 142 other toxic spill sites across Canada, has existed since the 2004-05 federal budget, but just $1 billion of the $3.4 billion that was put aside has been spent the Conservatives since they came to power. When I asked the Harper Government about this in Question Period they said they weren’t aware of the Big Grassy case (even though the information is on the Treasury Board’s website), but promised to look into it. Not exactly the swift response we saw in the Cowichen Tribes case to say the least.
Another poor decision related to First Nation matters this week was the Harper government’s decision to de-fund the Biwaase’aa children’s program in Thunder Bay. Biwaase’aa provided in-school and after-school programming for more than a decade to 500 First Nation children that included; providing lunch and after-school snacks, recreational activities, cultural teachings and emotional support for First Nation students at seven elementary schools. Oh, and they provided these services for just $5 per day per student. Now, we all know that the federal government must be careful with our tax dollars, but don’t you think that $5 per day per student for such programming is a considerably better investment than say $1 billion for a three day G8/G20 meeting, or $27 billion for just 65 fighter jets? Me too.
In all, it was another week of budget secrecy and very weak performance on First Nation’s issues by the Harper Government. For our part, New Democrats will continue to work for a more open and accountable government and more timely, effective, and sensible investment in First Nation health matters moving forward.
John Rafferty MP
Thunder Bay Rainy River