April 30, 2021 - Over the last two decades, the federal government has made attempts to shift towards a new type of relationship with First Nations communities. A relationship built on mutual respect and mutual accountability. A recent report published by Northern Policy Institute raises the question as to whether funding and reporting expectations continue to miss the mark.
In Chasing Paper: Forms over Function in First Nation Administration, author Caitlyn McAuliffe finds that First Nations continue to face significant hurdles when it comes to applying for, and reporting on, funding. The average First Nation community is expected to submit approximately 130 reports a year just to qualify for funding through the ISC, Health Canada, and Social Development Canada alone. That quantity of reports puts a strain on already over-worked Band staff.
In addition to reports, there are other hurdles that slow the process. Restrictive funding parameters are one issue. Larger-scale projects tend to fall within broader, national, funding guidelines. Guidelines that are often ill-suited to specific local projects. A problem that is not unique to First Nations to be sure. Year-to-year variations in funding structures and priorities also discourage the formulation of larger projects. Initial complexity in reporting is made worse when combined with different criteria in different years.
This is problematic for First Nations who are forced to reallocate community funds so that they can begin much-needed updates to necessary infrastructure. Small projects, which should be easier to fund, actually tend to have fewer potential funding sources. Meaning extra work even to find a funding stream. With no certainty the funding will be granted in the end.
Once First Nations are able gain access to funds, the expectations for monitoring and evaluating projects leave much to be desired. It is a top-down approach. Dictated by government and focused on outputs not outcomes. It is not informed by the First Nation’s desired goals. There is a lack of reciprocal communication as well. Leaving First Nations wondering how their project outcomes and data are being perceived and used by others. Does last year’s frustrated reporting become next years simplified process?
One might think that government funding and reporting processes are more trouble than they are worth. First Nations, unfortunately, often have no other choice. Communities may need seed funding before they are able to create their own revenue for reinvestment. To get that funding, they must comply with government reporting measures. Not submitting the required paperwork on time can have severe consequences. It can result in a Band losing its funding altogether. It can also negatively affect the Band’s reputation. Which could prevent the success of future larger-scale investments down the road.
These parameters for reporting and funding are not only of concern for First Nations, but for non-Indigenous Canadians as well. The inflexibility that First Nations are experiencing with government and government agencies reduce the efficiency of First Nation’s projects, raises their cost, and slows their completion. This reduces or delays the positive contributions these projects make to our wider, shared economy.
Nipissing First Nation (NFN) is a local example that speaks to the issues of data collection and funding gaps. In the 2017/2018 fiscal year, NFN had to submit 180 reports for funding related purposes. They also found that funding timelines varied between departments and often failed to match internal government project deadlines. This made it difficult to start and finish projects on time. This is rather frustrating as this First Nation has dozens of small businesses and other services on their lands that benefit both Indigenous and non-Indigenous northerners.
NFN is one of many reserves that are active participants in the northern economy. McAuliffe argues that policy changes are necessary to support this and First Nation communities in focusing on growth, not reporting. First, a new framework needs to be developed from the ground up. First Nations policies and practices should inform the new framework and it must be one that achieves mutual transparency and accountability. A joint body driven by self-determination that oversees relationships and data governance is also needed. Third, increasing the accessibility of First Nations data collection for their own benefit is key. Lastly, creating a First Nations-informed set of indicators to assess project outcomes would change the way success is viewed.
Having a nation-to-nation relationship is fundamental in meeting the Calls to Action issued by the Truth & Reconciliation Commission. This is best achieved by responding to the factors preventing the efficiency of projects and blocking the measurement of project outcomes. As Canada considers its recovery plans for the COVID-19 pandemic, it needs to reevaluate the funding and reporting requirements placed on First Nations. Not doing so would undermine our nation’s goal of reconciliation. It is also a disservice to the First Nations that have and will continue to contribute to Northern Ontario’s economic revival.
Larissa Yantha is a policy analyst at Northern Policy Institute. An independent social and economic think tank with permanent offices in Sudbury and Thunder Bay.
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