“Equalization-plus is, simply stating, that if we were to see the treaties honored in this country you would see a people that were sharing the resources… We never gave everything. We never gave everything.”—Regional Chief Isadore Day.
By Deb Steel
Canada is staring down the barrel of a civil rights showdown so significant it will rival the impact of Brown vs. Board of Education in the United States, says former Ontario premier Bob Rae.
If Canada doesn’t deal with the fact that it has excluded Indigenous governments from equalization, a fundamental principle of Canadian Federation, the country’s going to have “a hell of a legal battle on their hands.”
Equalization is Canada’s transfer payment program that addresses fiscal disparities between the provinces. It’s the balancing program that allows the less prosperous areas of the country to provide public services comparable to those public services provided in wealthier jurisdictions of Canada.
In his presentation to a gathering of Indigenous leaders and government representatives Nov. 27, Rae spoke of Canada’s failure to acknowledge the full implications of the decision of the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal in the “Caring Society” case.
The tribunal found the inequity of the funding provided by the federal government for child welfare services on reserve was discriminatory. The human rights challenge was championed by Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada.
It was the “equality of funding argument” accepted by the tribunal that sparked Rae’s prediction of an equalization court challenge.
He said “the Constitution of Canada talks about equalization as being a fundamental principle of the Canadian Federation. The only group that we’ve left out, the only level of government we’ve completely abandoned with respect to that principle, is Indigenous government.”
Rae said the equalization principle in Canada doesn’t seem yet to apply to First Nations, and it should.
“It’s our civil rights struggle as a country.”
Rae said it’s every bit as significant as the Brown case in the U.S., in which the Supreme Court decided the laws that allowed separate public schools for black and white students were unconstitutional.
“This level of inequality can not be allowed to stand,” Rae said of excluding Indigenous governments from equalization. “It can not be permitted to continue. And I don’t think the full implications of what has been going on with the “Caring Society” case has been embraced yet by the federal government and it needs to be.”
It’s not just about child welfare, he said.
“It’s about education. It’s about health care. It’s about policing. It’s about every single aspect of Indigenous life in this country.”
Isadore Day, regional chief of Ontario, had the principle of equalization in his sights for his presentation to the gathering the next morning at the Nation-to-Nation National Summit held in Ottawa.
He said that as the final weeks of the 150th year anniversary of Canada come to a close, “there’s a parallel that can be drawn between the final province to enter Confederation and the current condition of far too many First Nations across Canada.”
Newfoundland became the 10th province to enter Confederation in 1949, a mere 68 years ago, because of the desire of the British to download the territory onto the Dominion, said Day.
A phrase in Confederation Hall in that province stuck him. It says ‘far too many people lived in grinding poverty’ before Newfoundland joined Confederation, said Day.
But the first 30 years for Newfoundland in the federation was no picnic. Newfoundland was a “have-not” province, and Ottawa transferred hundreds upon hundreds of millions of dollars each year to ensure its citizens enjoyed a standard of living relatively equal to those living in the rest of Canada.
But, in more recent times, Newfoundland has found its footing within Canada, and boomed at one point to becoming one of the richest provinces in the country, Day explained.
This fiscal, 2017/18, the transfer to Newfoundland is $734 million for a population of approximately 530,000, Day said. By comparison, New Brunswick, with a population of 750,000, received a transfer of $2.8 billion, nearly four times the amount transferred to Newfoundland.
“Clearly, Newfoundland has come a long way joining Confederation. The days of grinding poverty are long over,” he said. “Newfoundlanders were able to shake off the chains of British colonialism and are now recognized in Confederation as equal partners.”
“What separates Newfoundlanders from First Nations,” said Day, “is they are not governed under the Indian Act, and they are not subject to the dysfunctional bureaucratic system in Ottawa.”
Day called for the chains of the Indian Act to be broken. He says the bureaucratic dysfunction and delays of Canadian bureaucracy “are killing our people.”
“Canada 150 began with huge fireworks and celebration across the street on New Year’s Eve. Several weeks later two 12-year-old girls from Wapekeka First Nation in northern Ontario committed suicide.”
Day said the mental health and suicide prevention funding that that community had had for several decades had been cut off in 2016, and the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal cited the suicides as an example of what happens when Canada fails to provide basic services.
“This is Canada’s continuing shame. This is genocide in action.”
First Nations need to form their own institutions and authorities “from health and education, from housing to infrastructure.”
And they must have the resources to govern themselves, to establish and maintain economies, to provide education, to ensure health and well-being, community safety, and to converse in their own languages.”
Day said First Nations are not included in the equalization program and do not receive reliable transfer payments based upon need. They are simply line items under the policy sectors of this country.
He described a new fiscal relationship with Canada as “equalization-plus.”
“Long-term transfer payments to our communities and organizations, that’s what’s needed. Equalization-plus must be the high water mark in the new fiscal relationship, which simply means that, at a minimum, the playing field must be level and we should be afforded the ability to flourish…”
He said the provinces contribute to the Gross National Product through resources that are subject to First Nations title, treaties and jurisdiction, and First Nations must become visible participants and indicators in the GDP, contributing to the wealth of the country with resources, labor and enterprise, just as the provinces and territories do.
The treaty relationship allowed the newcomers to share with us in the bounties of this land.
“Equalization-plus is, simply stating, that if we were to see the treaties honored in this country you would see a people that were sharing the resources… We never gave everything. We never gave everything,” said Day.