Indigenous Relations deputy minister fends off critics at Public Accounts Committee

Former New Democrat Indigenous Relations minister Richard Feehan and Indigenous Relations Deputy Minister Donavon Young

“So in the middle of this COVID crisis the friendship centres, which are the primary urban Indigenous initiative, were reduced by 20 per cent. Were they provided any extra monies in regard to COVID?” — Former NDP Indigenous Relations minister Richard Feehan

By Shari Narine, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Alberta Indigenous Relations may have received a good report from the auditor general, but the Official Opposition was not ready to fall in line.

On Dec. 1, Indigenous Relations Deputy Minister Donavon Young appeared virtually in front of the Public Accounts Committee and accepted commendations from Auditor General Doug Wylie for the department having met all of the AG’s outstanding recommendations. Those recommendations focused on two aspects of the First Nations Development Fund grants: Improving the review process and monitoring for and correcting non-compliance.

However, Young still had to defend the United Conservative government’s decision to focus on larger projects for Indigenous economic development at the expense of funding for other programs.

Former NDP Indigenous Relations minister Richard Feehan pointed out that the Indigenous Relations budget had experienced “pretty significant changes” as it was cut by nearly 40 per cent, dropping from $261 million to $165 million in the 2019-2020 fiscal year.

Among those cuts, pointed out Feehan, was $700,000 which eliminated the Urban Initiatives program.

Young said funding was cut not because of the program’s failure but due to the need to meet new budgetary figures, and the departments push to meet its objective of “economic security and prosperity for Indigenous people.”

Young noted that 50 to 55 per cent of Indigenous peoples reside in urban settings. He pointed out that friendship centres remained funded, even though at a reduced rate, and accounted for the majority of the government’s urban Indigenous funding.

“So in the middle of this COVID crisis the friendship centres, which are the primary urban Indigenous initiative, were reduced by 20 per cent. Were they provided any extra monies in regard to COVID?” Feehan asked.

“Nothing through our department for COVID for friendship centres,” said Young.

Feehan also pointed out that the Indigenous Climate Leadership Initiatives program brought in by the NDP government was now defunct. The seven programs under this umbrella, he said, provided grants and created jobs in all 48 First Nations along with the eight Métis settlements.

That program, said Young, had a “strong uptake” and 319 projects were approved with $87 million in program funding.

While the Indigenous Climate Leadership Initiatives program funding has been concluded, Young said that such projects were eligible for funding through the Alberta Indigenous Opportunities Corporation with “investment opportunities that will bring new revenue streams to more places that urgently need them.”

The AOIC was established as a Crown corporation in November 2019 and offers loan guarantees from $25 million to $250 million per project.

Although NDP MLAs supported the creation of the AIOC, Feehan said “it also seems to me there’s been significant loss in local development and instead that money has been investment in large projects with international focuses.”

Young said that through the AOIC, six First Nations, as a consortium, had received a loan guarantee of $93 million this summer to participate in the Cascade Power Project development. He said this partnership was an indication that First Nations with fewer financial resources are capable of building equity.

Feehan noted that moving toward larger projects and cutting funding for more community-based projects could results in loss of employment opportunities. He asked Young if the government was tracking those numbers.

Young said the department did not track data on jobs created or lost through Indigenous Relations programs.

Feehan also focused on the water connections program undertaken by the NDP government to provide safe drinking water to First Nation communities. That program saw provincial dollars provided to municipalities or water commissions to bring infrastructure to the boundaries of the reserve. Then the federal government picked up the cost to build infrastructure tying into the province’s work.

There are 10 projects underway, said Young, with 14 First Nations benefitting. Three are in the construction phase, three are in the detailed design phase and four are in the feasibility study phase.

He admitted the UCP had put no new money into the program.

NDP MLA Marlin Schmidt questioned Young about the $10 million allocated for an Indigenous Litigation Fund to help Indigenous groups take legal action in support of natural resources projects. To date, only the Woodland Cree First Nation has accessed grant funding, which was used to intervene in support of the province in its legal challenge of Ottawa’s Bill C-69, which impacts future pipelines and critical infrastructure projects.

Schmidt wanted to know why the budgeted amount had not been revised considering the $188,000 accessed by the Woodland Cree represented less than two per cent of the budget.

Young said the $10 million had been an election platform commitment. When the fund was instituted, it was spread over two years. He said it was likely the $10 million would now be extended an additional year. He said the department was working with four applications and they had received 12 inquiries.

Young confirmed that a First Nation taking legal action against the provincial government would not qualify for grant dollars through the Indigenous Litigation Fund.

Young said by addressing the auditor general’s recommendations, the department was able to focus on the future.

“(The) mandate is about being a true partner with Indigenous communities to address economic and social issues,” he said.

The Indigenous Relations ministry budget has been re-aligned to “reduce Indigenous communities’ reliance on government funding while increasing their ability to access and invest funds in income generating projects,” said Young.

Local Journalism Initiative Reporters are supported by a financial contribution made by the Government of Canada.

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