FTA negotiations on hold as ‘fiscal restraint’ hits Ottawa

Council of Yukon First Nations Grand Chief Ruth Massie is criticizing Canada for refusing to expand negotiations over financial transfer agreements with Yukon First Nations.

Council of Yukon First Nations Grand Chief Ruth Massie is criticizing Canada for refusing to expand negotiations over financial transfer agreements with Yukon First Nations.

The agreements are needed before aboriginal governments can collect money they need to operate.

Massie met with Indian and Northern Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl for the first time as grand chief in Dawson City last week.

“I’m a little bit disappointed that Canada doesn’t recognize the importance of self-governing First Nations to handle their own affairs to adequate levels,” she said on Friday.

There are outstanding financial issues Ottawa isn’t interested in solving right now, known as the “hard file,” said Massie.

While financial transfer agreements exist and are being renewed, none have been updated with regards to taxation, the financing formula and the collection of revenue by First Nations from resources on their own land.

As a result, aboriginal governments can’t collect the money they need to operate.

“First Nations have been trying to address these issues through their reviews of their FTAs and Canada’s got them on hold,” said Massie.

“Basically, Mr. (Chuck) Strahl said, ‘Canada is in fiscal restraint.’”

Currently, people living on land owned by a self-governing First Nation are taxed by Canada. The First Nations receive 75 per cent of that while 25 per cent remains in Ottawa.

But First Nations can’t collect a corporate tax from businesses working in their territory, said Massie.

Also, the formula for most First Nation financial agreements is set in 2000 numbers, she said.

And First Nations still have no deal to collect profits from their own resources.

There are 11 First Nations with self-government agreements in the Yukon. Seven were on the cusp to having their transfers renewed last year after negotiations with Ottawa concluded. But federal Finance Department officials rejected terms agreed to by their colleagues in the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs, said Massie.

“It was a real shock to our negotiators because each First Nation is still trying to work with our existing financial resources,” she said.

Financial transfer agreements are renewed every nine years. The remaining four First Nations haven’t renewed their agreements.

In the meantime, federal officials attending the meeting – know as the intergovernmental forum – agreed to create a committee for First Nations seeking funds from the one-year-old Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency, or Cannor.

“The Yukon government was very supportive because they access this fund and they were very supportive of the implementation of the FTAs,” said Massie.

All First Nations and the territory have agencies that handle economic development. According to terms set at last week’s meeting, Cannor will handle funding proposals from the Yukon government, the Association of Yukon Communities and First Nations, she said.

First Nation development corporations will not replace the Economic Development Department when it comes to aboriginal projects, said Massie. Instead, the department will act as a partner.

When Massie was elected grand chief three weeks ago, she called intergovernmental forums ineffective.

The forums, attended by the Council of Yukon First Nations, Premier Dennis Fentie and Strahl, rarely finalize deals.

A federal news release on last week’s forum in Dawson didn’t mention any accomplishments.

The discussion was good, but nothing was finalized, said Strahl after it wrapped up.

Asked if she pressed her concerns with Strahl, Massie said she urged Ottawa to spend more time in meetings.

“I explained the importance of having a seven-hour meeting instead of a two-hour meeting,” she said. “I don’t think you can address, resolve or dialogue properly on outstanding issues important to First Nations in two hours.

“For First Nations, our agreements are our life. For Canada, our agreements are just another document on the shelf.”

Many self-governing First Nations have been successful, but others languish because their budgets aren’t large enough to care for their members. All are at different stages of undertaking the responsibilities agreed to in their agreements, which range from child care to justice.

Aboriginal governments can’t hire the expertise they’re expected to provide for their members, said Massie.

“There’s a cost of doing business in our whole region, both for the Yukon government and the First Nations,” she said. “And all we want to do is be accommodated to the capacity level that we can do our jobs properly.”

But Ottawa is tightening funding – outside of Cannor – sparking criticism that enough is enough.

“I’ve heard people say, ‘Well, you’ve got this and you’ve got that,’ but we really don’t,” said Massie.

“(Often, First Nation) money runs out before they can finish the job.”

Asked at what point aboriginal governments will no longer need Ottawa to help them develop, Massie touted legal negotiations as a form of economic development.

“People think it’s a lot of money, but what has our land-claim process contributed to the Yukon region?” she said.

“I bet you Yukon First Nations have spent at least $100 million in the last 40 years, and there isn’t one Yukoner who can say they didn’t benefit from it.

“We were at the negotiating tables for 30 years; what businesses did not receive benefits for that?

“When you hold conferences and meetings, they’re flying in here, they’re getting rooms, they’re eating, they’re taking taxis, they’re going into our stores.

“It’s an industry up here, for sure.”

If Ottawa gave enough money to First Nations to allow them to undertake all their responsibilities as governments, they could finally become self-sufficient financially, said Massie.

“If we are adequately resourced, we’d be able to complete our work and we’ll be able to start contributing to society business-wise,” she said.

“It will help us become self-reliant and self-sufficient – that is the ultimate dream at the end of the day.

“But how can you do that when you can’t even get off the ground?

On the flip side, how do you become self-reliant by asking for more money?

“It goes back to the old saying, ‘It takes money to make money,’” she said.

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