AFN has a plan that benefits all
TheStar.com – Opinion – AFN has a plan that benefits all
January 15, 2009. Phil Fontaine
Canadians across the country are experiencing the creeping anxiety of impending economic instability. The global economic meltdown is triggering talk of deficits and a recession.
First Nations people empathize. After all, our communities have been in a recession for years now. Resources to First Nation communities have been capped at 2 per cent growth since 1996. Contrast this with the provinces, which receive an annual increase of 6.6 per cent in transfers for health and social services. The 2 per cent cap imposed on First Nations does not keep pace with inflation or our young, booming population.
The results are both inevitable and intolerable: poverty and deprivation, dilapidated housing, high unemployment, crumbling schools, unsafe drinking water, poor health care, and children who are too hungry to learn and too desperate to hope.
Yet this economic crisis presents an opportunity to improve these conditions while achieving the economic stimulus Canadians want and need.
Canadians want action and the Assembly of First Nations has a plan.
The upcoming federal budget is an opportunity for real change. Our plan is reasonable and achievable. Canadians can support it because it is good for all Canadians.
Our plan calls for a portion of the federal stimulus to be targeted toward three key areas: First Nations infrastructure, education and partnerships.
Infrastructure means, first and foremost, jobs. The federal government and Canadians want to see shovels in the ground. First Nations have shovel-ready projects.
We know there is a pressing need for 87,000 new housing units on-reserve and 44,000 more that require repairs. Eighty-five First Nations have high-risk drinking water systems. We need 69 new schools and 95 more that require repairs.
The problem is not an absence of information. It’s the absence of action. With political will and foresight, we can get shovels in the ground and jobs created, tomorrow.
This work benefits everyone. Every house built produces 1.3 person years of local employment. Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation estimates that every $1 million spent on housing construction creates 5.4 years of direct employment and 18.2 person-years in other sectors of the economy.
Shovels in the ground mean new homes will be built as well as safer and healthier First Nations communities.
School construction is important as well, but it is not an end in itself. We want our students to graduate from those schools equipped for the workforce by attaining higher education levels. This is the second component of our plan.
First Nations are the workforce of tomorrow. Canada is in the midst of a demographic shift. More Canadians are retiring than entering the workforce. The exception is First Nations. More than half our population is under the age of 25, and we are growing.
Our youth are crucial to Canada’s future as a productive and competitive country. Investments now will reap massive dividends. The Canadian Centre for the Study of Living Standards calculates that $71.1 billion will be added to the economy if aboriginal people attain the same education rates as other Canadians. Canada literally cannot afford to lose this generation.
The final plank of our plan is partnerships between First Nations and the private sector. The AFN is calling for a $1 billion repayable loan fund to encourage and support these partnerships. Canada is forecasting $350 billion in resource activities in First Nations territories in the coming years. For these ventures to be successful, First Nations must be involved. The loans will be repayable with interest, so Canada will actually make money on this initiative.
Simply put, our plan is about investing in infrastructure as immediate action now for the economy; investing in education for a strong Canada today and in the future; and partnerships to build a stronger economy for all Canadians.
Of course, we must also plan for the post-stimulus period. Our plan builds on the Kelowna Accord, an agreement beneficial for all of Canada, to forge a path forward.
First Nations are calling for real, progressive action in the upcoming budget. We have not fared well in the economic good times, so, like many Canadians, we are deeply concerned about the bad times.
We will press for action on our plan when we meet with the Prime Minister and provincial and territorial leaders today in advance of the First Ministers Meeting on the Economy. Our message is clear: Act now. Do not fail First Nations, do not fail Canada.
Phil Fontaine is the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations.