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Cautious Optimism on Budget 2016

Budgets are moral documents. They reveal to us the priorities of our government, especially with respect to the needs of marginalized people. They call us as Christian citizens to respond, whether with praise or constructive criticism.

Budget analysis is a bit of a cottage industry here in Ottawa. We here at the Christian Reformed Centre for Public Dialogue are not economists and can’t offer insights into every fine detail of this first Liberal budget. But we watched the Budget announcement closely this past Tuesday. On our priority issues, Indigenous education and refugee resettlement, we’re cautiously optimistic about what Budget 2016 shows us about the government’s priorities. Both of these policy areas figured prominently in the Liberal platform in the 2015 election so it’s good to see the budget details emerging. In the coming months we hope to learn more details about these significant budget commitments in conversation with Parliamentarians, refugee advocates, and Indigenous communities and leaders. For now, here are some first impressions:

Refugee Resettlement:

This week Canada’s refugee resettlement system, and particularly the private sponsorship system that many churches participate in, was called an example for the world to follow by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. Successful settlement and integration of refugees will depend on sustained commitments to supports for refugees’ needs (health, language, training), as well as systems that process claimants in a timely way. 

The realities of refugees’ lives (as our Journey with Me workshop helps us understand) include risky journeys and, all too frequently, the separation of families. We’re pleased to see a significant budget commitment to family reunification efforts.

The budget makes helpful commitments to improving the processing system with $245 million dedicated to the identification, processing, and resettlement of government-assisted refugees from Syria. As details on processing system improvements emerge in the coming months we’ll be looking for at least 2 things:

  • A strong and helpful connection between the Department of Immigration and Refugees and sponsorship organizations (like World Renew).
  • Clarity on how Canada will assist non-Syrian refugees who continue to live in risky situations. 

The budget and current departmental plans are not precise on either of these details. We’ll be watching and asking for more information. 

April 4 is Refugee Rights day – we encourage you to use these great resources from the Canadian Council for Refugees to speak with your MP about welcoming refugees. 

Indigenous Education:

Prime Minister Trudeau has said that the relationship between Indigenous peoples and Canada is a central priority of his government. He’s called for the implementation of all 94 Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and has committed to starting with implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. These are urgent, noble, costly, and complex ambitions and Budget 2016 makes some helpful strides in the right direction. As one of our Indigenous partners has said, “There is reason for cautious optimism, while maintaining concern, as this rolls out.”

Here are some reasons for optimism that we’re seeing:

  • The budget makes a 5-year $8.3 billion commitment to new spending in Indigenous communities, including major new commitments to Indigenous education. This is good news! We saw plenty of tension and controversies around Indigenous education reform in the last Parliament, so these new commitments on one of the key issues that we follow are welcome and substantial.
  • We are glad to see a candid admission of the clear gap in high school graduation rates between Indigenous students and non-indigenous students right at the beginning of the budget discussion on Indigenous education. Just 35% of on-reserve First Nations students graduate highschool, a far cry from the 85% of other Canadian youth with highschool diplomas. This gap is unjust and unacceptable and it seems that the government recognizes that. Experiments by the Mi'kmaq on the east coast with Indigenous-led education systems show that gap can change with the right reforms and funding.
  • Research shows that support for language and culture curriculum is critical for the success of Indigenous students. So we’re glad to see clear investments in language and culture programs!

The current system of First Nation education is a confusing patchwork of overlapping jurisdictions and multiple accountability hoops for Indigenous educators and administrators to deal with. A significant reform of Indigenous education is necessary and the budget does not give clarity on this critical need.  Granted, Indigenous Affairs Minster Bennett has suggested that more details are coming so we’ll be watching and asking questions.

System reform is most certainly where we need caution and concern.

  • The current funding formula for Indigenous education is outdated by decades and includes administration-heavy requirements for annual proposals for basics like literacy and special education. Unfortunately, the budget does not offer any specifics on the development of a stable and predictable funding formula even in the context of the significant new funding commitments. 
  • Indigenous education experts tell us that the capital funds committed for First Nations schools are significant but likely below what is required. Therefore, Shannen’s Dream is still an urgent call for Canadians. We must continue to bear witness to these inequities.
  • Breakdowns in trust between Indigenous communities and the government created controversy in the last attempt at Indigenous education reform. The current government’s commitments to TRC Calls to Action 7-10 (which deal with reconciliation and reform in Indigenous education) will require the establishment of trust and working relationships with Indigenous communities and educators. As far as we can tell, the System Transformation commitments in the budget ($824 million) are a new attempt at a consultation and partnership process. However, the budget details on this essential process are thin. Robust and trusting relationships are essential for a system transformation so we’ll be looking for full details in the weeks and months to come.

Budget 2016 comes to us from a government that has made a commitment to regular consultation with stakeholders and citizens. At the Christian Reformed Centre for Public Dialogue, we believe it’s important to take the government at their word about their commitment to consultation by seeking out conversations with Parliamentarians to affirm the good in the budget and to ask questions about details and concerns on refugee resettlement, reconciliation in Indigenous education, and other pressing issues. Stay tuned for more information and citizen action alerts this spring!  

[Image: Flickr user Kyle Brown]

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