Federal budget neglects North, First Nations

Tuesday’s federal budget did not confirm Yukon MP Larry Bagnell’s worst fears about the new Conservative government in Ottawa.

Tuesday’s federal budget did not confirm Yukon MP Larry Bagnell’s worst fears about the new Conservative government in Ottawa.

But it came pretty close.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper offered his vision of Canada in the recent throne speech, which did not mention the words ‘North’ or ‘Arctic’ and made one-off references to important northern issues such as “aboriginals” and “the environment.”

Likewise, the first Conservative budget is a disappointment for northerners, said Bagnell.

“As we saw in the throne speech, the North was totally left out,” Bagnell said Tuesday from Ottawa.

“I was looking for references to northern economic development; the search-and-rescue planes for the North, the northern strategy, northern contaminated sites, greenhouse gases, the international polar year were all left out.

“(The Conservatives) made grandiose promises about Arctic sovereignty, with three icebreakers and a deep-water port.

“Those are not mentioned.

“There was nothing for the environment.

“They cancelled about 15 of our greenhouse gas programs.

“Kyoto is, basically, dead.”

But the biggest disappointment is the demise of the Kelowna accord, said Bagnell.

In November 2005, Canadian premiers and the former Liberal government hammered out a $5.1-billion deal with First Nations leaders to close the poverty gap that exists between aboriginals and mainstream Canadian society.

In a January letter to the three northern premiers, Harper agreed to the “targets that were established to reduce aboriginal poverty” over five to 10 years.

And Indian and Northern Affairs minister Jim Prentice re-affirmed Ottawa’s commitment to the “targets and objectives” of Kelowna in Whitehorse last month.

But the budget meets none of the Kelowna commitments.

It includes money for affordable housing in the North and pure water supplies, both of which were separate from the Kelowna deal, said Bagnell.

There’s no reference whatsoever to doing anything about the Kelowna agreements in the future, he said.

The agreements were non-partisan, but were made between “Canada and the aboriginal people of this country, whose relations have been so strained over the years,” he added.

The Union of BC Indian Chiefs responded to Harper’s budget almost immediately.

“Our fear, suspicion and mistrust of (Harper’s) Conservative government to support the historic Kelowna accord were well placed,” chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, said in a release.

“Today, aboriginal people across Canada learned that (Harper) has a wooden heart to match his wooden smile,” said Phillip.

“In addition, First Nations leaders in British Columbia now understand Indian Affairs minister Jim Prentice speaks with a forked tongue.

“On March 9, 2006, (Prentice) publicly committed to assembled chiefs that he would work hard to put ‘wheels on Kelowna.’

“Rather, the Harper government has chosen to junk the whole accord and relegate it to the proverbial scrap heap.

“Like many First Nations leaders, we waited for the budget speech to get a true sense of this government’s commitment to collaborative approaches with First Nations.

“It is now beyond question; (Harper) has set an adversarial, if not outright hostile tone regarding federal-First Nations relationships in Canada.”

The budget made no reference to base-plus per capita funding for the three northern territories, which Harper supported in his January letter.

“That’s in the companion document, and they’ve proposed to address that in the fall,” said Yukon Premier Dennis Fentie.

“Our MP is totally off base to say there is nothing in here for the Yukon.”

Ottawa is increasing its transfer to the territory.

“In direct fiscal benefit the Yukon will see in this budget an increase of $11.1 million,” said Fentie.

“The federal government has committed to addressing fiscal imbalance.

“For the Yukon, that’s very positive.”

Just because a certain target or issue is not listed as a line item in the federal budget does not mean it is totally off Ottawa’s radar, said Bagnell.

“The thing is, we don’t know whether or not we’re going to see them.

“Maybe they still are in departments. Maybe we’ve got to wait and see.

“But when there is total lack of any vision or reference to the North, it makes you worry.”

The Conservatives will continue the mining exploration flow-through share and eliminate an excise tax on gold nuggets and jewelry.

“As mining is the biggest contributor to the gross territorial product — or at least it used to be — that will be well received by the mining community,” said Bagnell.

They’ll also lower the excise tax on the Yukon Brewing Company  Ltd.

“There are a lot of tax cuts for business and some for individuals,” said Bagnell.

“But they are basically on the backs of the most vulnerable — the students, the people who need child care, the aboriginal people and the homeless.

“The homelessness fund works very well in the Yukon, and I have no idea if they are going to renew that because there is no mention of that.”