While the federal government and many of the Yukon’s self-governing First Nations try to hash out new funding agreements, federal Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett was in Carcross to extend an olive branch of sorts.
Bennett announced June 27, during the Council of Yukon First Nations general assembly, that Ottawa has stopped clawing back money from self-governing First Nations across Canada with their own sources of revenue.
Previously, First Nations that collected money from sources like resource revenue, taxes or other businesses had up to 50 per cent of that cash taken off their financial transfers from Ottawa, according to a story in Northern Public Affairs magazine.
A moratorium on that policy has been in place since April 1, Bennett said. It’s slated to last up to three years or until a new fiscal policy is in place.
“This very practical move will ensure that while we are jointly developing the new fiscal policy, self-governing First Nations will be able to allocate all of their resources to the most pressing needs in their communities,” she said.
“This is critical to help closing the socio-economic gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians.”
Since at least 2015, the federal government has been trying to come up with a new fiscal policy to guide funding self-governing First Nations in Canada.
Without going into detail, Bennett said the policy that’s being negotiated would eventually let “everybody know what the rules are and what is deemed to be fair” while at the same time allowing for flexibility to deal with “unique” situations.
Whatever those guidelines end up being, they’ll likely become critical to Yukon’s self-governing First Nations, many of whom have been working for more that a year and a half to come up with new transfer agreements with Ottawa.
Financial transfer agreements are renegotiated every five years. The agreements for seven Yukon First Nations first expired in Dec. 2016. They have since been extended until March 2018.
Bennett said the federal government’s ability to take back some of First Nation’s own revenue “was really in the way” of the negotiations.
But at least one chief suggested there were more important issues that needed to be worked out.
Teslin Tlingit Council Chief Richard Sidney told Bennett Yukon First Nations already have everything they need to negotiate their financial transfers laid out in self-government agreements, and they don’t need additional policies.
“We don’t need any policy to describe what is acceptable, what is not acceptable. We have the final agreements that layout the framework for how we are going to negotiate this new relationship.”
Sidney said ending the own-source revenue clawback is not enough to give First Nations the money they need.
Yukon self-government agreements require that Canada provides enough money to First Nations to “provide public services at levels reasonably comparable to those generally prevailing in Yukon.”
Sidney said his First Nation makes about $1.2 million a year in own-source revenue. That means the federal government may have been taking back as much as $600,000.
The First Nation’s annual operating budget is $18 million. But what they actually need is closer to $30 million, he said.
“So we’re drastically underfunded.”
It’s not clear how much money Yukon First Nations will get to keep now that the claw back has ended. Questions to Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada were not answered by deadline.
Sidney said he was willing to take the federal government to court if new financial transfer agreements aren’t reached soon.
“If we’re unsuccessful, (if) the government doesn’t want to co-operate or come to the table with active mandates then we’ll let the courts decide,” he said.
“We don’t want to go there. We want to negotiate.”
Bennett assured the assembly she didn’t want to end up in court either. While the new policy would provide guidelines, “there’s no question that honouring the agreements is paramount,” she said.
Grand Chief Peter Johnston of the Council of Yukon First Nations said he believed Yukon First Nations will be treated differently under whatever policy is eventually created.
“It’s only a policy. We already have agreements with Canada that need to be respected.”
Other Yukon chiefs, while stressing the importance of implementing their self-governing agreements, said they were pleased that the own-source revenue clawback was ending.
“Although it doesn’t meet all of our needs … it tells us that you’re listening,” said Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Chief Roberta Joseph.
Joseph praised the current federal government for being willing to sit down and have difficult conversations, something she said didn’t exist with the previous government.
“We look forward to continuing to have discussions on the fiscal transfer agreements and hopefully are able to work towards implementing them the way they were meant to be.”
Contact Ashley Joannou at firstname.lastname@example.org