Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller introduced Bill C-45 on March 23. The legislation responds to calls for more tools and capacity support for Indigenous communities and organizations to help close the infrastructure gap, writes Harold Calla.
Establishing the First Nations Infrastructure Institute is vital to addressing the $30-billion infrastructure gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities in Canada.
By Harold Calla | Published by The Hill Times, May 10, 2023
Sometimes legislative amendments have transformative potential. Such is the case with amendments to the First Nations Fiscal Management Act (FMA) tabled in the House of Commons on March 23. They support efforts to close the infrastructure gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities, and unlock the Indigenous economy.
These amendments housed in Bill C-45 reflect what the FMA institutions, including the First Nations Financial Management Board (FMB), have been hearing from the First Nations communities we serve. A First Nations-led institution, the FMB supports First Nations in achieving their socioeconomic development goals through sound finance and administrative governance practices. There are now 342 First Nations scheduled to the FMA—60 per cent of the Indian Act Nations in Canada. This means a critical mass of First Nations are now looking to the FMA to support their efforts to implement their rights and title. These amendments respond to these needs and help modernize the FMA.
The centrepiece of the FMA amendments responds to calls for more tools and capacity support for Indigenous communities and organizations to help close the infrastructure gap. The First Nations Infrastructure Institute (FNII), as a fourth institution of the FMA— joining the FMB, the First Nations Finance Authority, and the First Nations Tax Commission—would support interested Indigenous First Nations in building and maintaining cost-effective, efficient, and sustainable infrastructure assets. Establishing FNII is vital to addressing the $30-billion infrastructure gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities in Canada.
That massive gap is a legacy of Canada’s colonial system of governance. The Indian Act has denied many First Nations the capacity to plan, develop, and manage public infrastructure assets.
Like its sister FMA institutions, FNII would be First Nations-led, offer optional programs and services, and become a centre of excellence.
The impact of FNII would start to be felt with the passage of these amendments. That’s because the groundwork for FNII’s institutional design is already underway, being guided by a development board comprised of First Nations leaders from across the country.
Paqtnkek Mi’kmaw Nation in Nova Scotia is one of two communities that FNII engaged with as a proof of concept prior to being included in the FMA amendments. Since 2019, FNII and Paqtnkek have worked together to develop a community infrastructure plan for both residential and commercial purposes. This includes plans for water, wastewater, telecommunications, and electricity infrastructure.
FNII would develop standards and tools to support communities in adopting infrastructure best practices. It would build the infrastructure planning, implementation and management capacity needed to support Nations in achieving their infrastructure goals. And it would assist First Nations in asserting infrastructure jurisdiction through new regulatory powers.
The transformative potential of these amendments is also found in an expanded mandate for the FMB. The amendments would enable the FMB to provide financial management supports to Tribal Councils and First Nation Treaty and Self-Governing groups. This means the FMB would be able to support innovative projects of collaborative entities such as the Meadow Lake Tribal Council, which is comprised of nine First Nations.
The Meadow Lake Tribal Council shows what is possible in infrastructure development through collaboration with the recent opening of the Meadow Lake Tribal Council Bioenergy Centre in northwestern Saskatchewan, where wood waste is turned into heat and power. The First Nations-owned plant will generate carbon-neutral green power using sawmill biomass residuals. The first facility of its kind in the province, the Bioenergy Centre is expected to produce 6.6 megawatts of baseload electricity to power approximately 5,000 homes with greener energy.
We will see more innovative developments from Indigenous communities in clean energy and other sectors in the coming years. The FMA amendments are part of the changes needed to unlock Indigenous economies.
The Indigenous economy in Canada is estimated to have a potential value of $100-billion in the coming years. Realizing that potential will be transformative not only for Indigenous Peoples, but also for all Canadians. Getting there requires systemic change. It calls for the sharing of power and wealth. And it’s within our reach.
Harold Calla is the executive chair of the First Nations Financial Management Board.