The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the infrastructure gap in many Indigenous communities, as restrictions on gatherings, schools, and workplaces forced many to attempt to connect from home, writes Harold Calla. Pexels photograph by Edward Jenner.
Bridging a $30-billion infrastructure gap will create economic opportunities in a post-pandemic world that will bring significant economic activity to all regions of Canada that will benefit all Canadians.
By Harold Calla | August 3, 2022
The Government of Canada faces the staggering challenge of closing an estimated $30-billion First Nations infrastructure gap. This is the estimated cost of bringing fundamental infrastructure in First Nations communities up to the same levels as non-Indigenous communities, based on a report by the Canadian Council for Public-Private Partnerships.
This infrastructure gap contributes to the economic, social, health, and education disparities between the Indigenous and non-Indigenous populations in Canada. It has also created significant liabilities for the federal government. Without institutional support it currently takes five times longer for an Indigenous infrastructure project to become shovel ready, compared to provincial systems. Not only is the current First Nations infrastructure gap unacceptable, but it is likely to become even more severe in the future if the current procurement and financing model is not replaced to reflect the approaches successfully employed by other governments.
While this infrastructure gap seems to only negatively impact Indigenous peoples in their communities, it actually negatively impacts Canada as a whole. The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the infrastructure gap in many Indigenous communities, as restrictions on gatherings, schools, and workplaces forced many to attempt to connect from home. To work from home, people need quality infrastructure like water, wastewater, and telecommunications and internet connectivity. These resources are not available for all Indigenous communities. Well-established and supported communities bring success and developments that bring us all forward.
The Indigenomics Institute estimates that a strong Indigenous economy could provide a $100-billion boost to the Canadian economy. Bridging a $30-billion infrastructure gap will create economic opportunities in a post-pandemic world that will bring significant economic activity to all regions of Canada that will benefit all Canadians.
The First Nations Fiscal Management Act (FMA) institutions are presenting solutions to address this gap through an initiative we are calling RoadMap. Chapter 3 of the RoadMap, Closing the Infrastructure Gap, proposes: the creation of the First Nations Infrastructure Institute (FNII) by amending the already successful First Nations Fiscal Management Act (FNFMA) to include FNII. FNII will support local capacity development in the design, procurement, and operations of infrastructure assets to ensure they achieve their projected life cycle. Under the risk management framework of the FNFMA, Canada needs to modernize its transfer system with First Nations to allow the use of federal transfers to service debt for infrastructure, increase fiscal powers, and the ability to include own-source revenues to create new pathways for infrastructure financing. The current pay-as-you-go model has failed.
The creation of the FNII would provide more tools and capacity development support for First Nation communities and organizations as they work to meet their infrastructure needs. It would also build on the success of the FMA as an optional First Nation-led initiative that is consistent with the principles of the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Also, it would provide a centre of excellence to increase Indigenous capacity and skills in infrastructure management and standardize best practices. These will reduce time and costs to develop and maintain infrastructure, saving funds and providing frameworks for infrastructure planning, procurement, and construction.
Along with institutional support, Canada could empower First Nations infrastructure investments by considering new options for land management and regulatory support. The First Nations Lands Advisory Board is currently piloting Land Code enforcement models. The federal government should support this pilot, implement the lessons learned at scale, and dedicate resources to support more First Nations governments to pursue Land Codes.
Finally, the federal government should enable financing options for infrastructure beyond the failed pay-as-you-go model. Using the FMA’s risk management framework new options should include the monetization of federal transfers and other revenues to finance infrastructure over the lifespan of the assets.
We invite the Government of Canada to join us in working to bridge the infrastructure gap through the creation of FNII and the other solutions brought forward. These will result in the long-term health and well-being of First Nation communities, and a more prosperous Canada.
Harold Calla, FCPA, FCGA, CAFM, is Executive Chair of the First Nations Financial Management Board, and member of the Squamish Nation, with experience in international business as a negotiator in the areas of economic development, land management and finance, and an arbitrator for First Nations in Western Canada.