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How do we know this? Because if better-funded government programs were the answer to Indigenous poverty, we would have seen the results by now. Between 1981 and 2016, the latest year for comparable data, Ottawa multiplied total federal spending on Indigenous programming by more than four times yet the gap between First Nations and other Canadian communities in the average Community Well-Being Index, which measures the well-being of individual Canadian communities, barely budged. In 1981, the gap was 19.5 points on a scale of zero to 100. In 2016, it was 19.1.
The biggest single problem facing First Nations is lack of economic opportunity. Fully 70 per cent of First Nation communities are located more than 50 kilometres from the nearest town or city, and almost 20 per cent have no all-weather road connection. As a result, development of natural resources such as forestry, oil and gas and minerals remains by far the best hope for prosperity for remote First Nations.
Overcoming distance requires infrastructure, including roads, railways, pipelines, power lines, communication towers and harbours. Governments may have to build some of these facilities, but in many other cases private investors would take on the job if only governments would get out of the way. Better transportation and communication to enhance economic opportunities for Indigenous peoples in remote locations is a more promising path out of poverty than more government programming.
Tom Flanagan is professor emeritus of political science at the University of Calgary, senior fellow at the Fraser Institute and author of the new study Promise and Performance: Recent Trends in Government Expenditures on Indigenous Peoples, published by the Fraser Institute.