Financing Reconciliation

Addressing longstanding, problematic fiscal and governance gaps in public service delivery for Canada’s local governments and First Nations was the focus of this Tuesday morning clinic. A distinguished panel of indigenous rights lawyers and First Nations and regional government leaders explained the origins and possible solutions to the current challenges communities face in service delivery.

The gap is a structural creation of the country’s constitutional framework, which only recognizes the two senior levels of government and does not specifically mention municipalities. Solutions proposed at the clinic included embracing Constitutional values and changing the federal transfer payment system to more equitably benefit all communities, including First Nations.

Section 36 of the Constitution Act (1982) is meant to address equalization and regional disparities, promising all Canadians comparable levels of public services at reasonably comparable levels of taxation.

“First Nations have a difficult time resourcing on-reserve capital projects and the basic public services that the rest of Canada takes for granted,” said Tony Bennett, Alberni-Clayoquot Regional District (ACRD) Director. They often lack access to safe water or fire protection, as two examples, and no mechanism for receiving the kinds of transfer payments that address these disparities in other parts of the country.

“The federal transfer payment system is intended to ensure quality public service delivery to all Canadians regardless of where they live,” said Courtney Kirk, CAO of the Central Coast Regional District (CCRD), who described the $75 billion in federal transfer payments made to provinces and territories and the $6 billion specific to British Columbia.

Ad hoc service agreements with local governments have tried to bridge the gap, but are not a long-term answer.

“Treaty is the only mechanism for First Nations to join into regional governance and finance,” said Bennett.

However, “many First Nations will not consider treaty, because there is no trust that the process will create an outcome that is acceptable to our people,” said Travis Hall, Heiltsuk councillor and CCRD director, adding that “Local Government Act amendments are necessary to end the blatant exclusion of non-treaty nations and change the flawed system of representation.”

“The current fiscal imbalance represents a meagre vision of the Canadian Constitution,” said University of Saskatchewan professor and Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Rights, Dr. Dwight Newman. Arguing for the proactive, common sense embrace of Canada’s constitutional values, he warned that a legal challenge will take too long for the urgency of the issue.

“We need a Section 36 solution,” said Don Lidstone of Lidstone & Company Barristers & Solicitors.

Divisive and ignorant comments from the Canadian public are a frequent and disappointing reality when these conversations arise.

“The distinction between taxpayers and First Nations is a false one,” said John Jack, ACRD Chair and Huu-ay-aht First Nation Councillor.  “The road to reconciliation has to change these discussions.”

“First Nations are not a threat,” said Jack. “First Nations are an ally and will always be a neighbour.”

The effort for fair fiscal compensation is the subject of Resolution B-150 and will be debated at this week’s policy plenary.

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