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Aboriginal spending tops $1.4-billion

From Wednesday's Globe and Mail

OTTAWA — The federal Conservatives will spend an extra $1.4-billion on aboriginal issues – mostly to help Canada's impoverished reserves – as native concerns are addressed in a wide range of budget items covering everything from seaports to railways.

Aboriginal leaders, accustomed over many years to budget-day disappointment, were hopeful that a summit this month with Prime Minister Stephen Harper would see their issues addressed.

They welcomed the new spending Tuesday, but expressed concern about the details.

The list of new aboriginal spending includes:

* $200-million to support aboriginal skills and training;

* $400-million to address native housing on reserves;

* $515-million to support urgent infrastructure projects on reserves, such as school construction, drinking water and policing;

* $325-million for partnerships with aboriginal organizations and provincial and territorial governments to deliver First Nations and Inuit Health programs and Child and Family Services;

* $250-million for all Canadians living in the North, which will benefit aboriginals ($200-million over two years for the territories for new housing and $50-million for a new regional economic development agency for the North);

* $7.9-million for two native railways: the Keewatin Railway Co. in Manitoba and Tshiuetin Rail Transportation in Quebec and Labrador.

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Phil Fontaine praised the new money for schools, housing and health but said his ultimate reaction to the budget is mixed.

“This is going to help a number of communities, and education is a major priority for us,” he said. “We're in crisis and it appears we're going to be able to build some badly needed houses.”

Mr. Fontaine expressed disappointment that Ottawa did not support a proposal to help native businesses access loans with a $1-billion repayable fund.

The president of Canada's Inuit organization, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, also offered a mixed reaction.

Mary Simon said the Inuit welcome money to consult aboriginals on the Mackenzie Valley pipeline and funding toward harbour improvements in the Baffin Island community of Pangnirtung. However, Ms. Simon said, the budget for a new northern development region is “modest” and will not help all regions where Inuit live.

The Conservative government was heavily criticized for refusing to commit to the 2005 Kelowna accord signed by Liberal prime minister Paul Martin, which promised $5-billion over five years in new aboriginal spending.

But according to a line in Budget 2009, the government now suggests it has exceeded the targets outlined in Kelowna: “These investments bring the amount of new funding that this government has announced for Aboriginal Canadians since 2006 to almost $6.3-billion.”

Officials confirmed the $6.3-billion figure includes the roughly $2-billion Common Experience Payment for former students of Indian residential schools, which was not contemplated as part of the Kelowna accord.

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