Indigenous Peoples and Government Programs in Canada

​In Canada, government programs for Indigenous peoples have been implemented by the federal government, and some provinces and territories.

Young Aboriginal man receiving a scholarship from the Indian Affairs Branch to pursue post-secondary education, circa 1957-1960.
Justin Trudeau and Perry Bellegarde
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and national chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) Perry Bellegarde talk before the beginning of the AFN Special Chiefs Assembly in Québec, 2015.

In Canada, government programs for Aboriginal peoples have been implemented by the federal government, and some provinces and territories. Historically, the Government of Canada has recognized special program responsibilities and obligations only toward First Nations people with status (see Indian). Inuit, Métis and Non-Status people were denied federal government recognition as Aboriginal people with special rights. Their needs were left to be met by whatever programs provincial and territorial governments might implement. Limited federal funding of Métis and Non-Status Indian organizations for political and cultural development finally began in 1970, but economic, social and health programs for these people remain with the provinces, or do not exist at all.


Since 1876, the Indian Act has been the major piece of legislation through which the federal government has defined its administration of Aboriginal peoples and lands — mostly relating to First Nations. From the 19th to the mid-20th century, Canada's Aboriginal policy had twin contradictory goals: protection of Aboriginal peoples from European society; and assimilation of Aboriginal peoples into European society. These goals were implemented by the government through a program of strong managerial control that, by the 1960s, had led to much public criticism. These goals were expressed in political, economic and cultural programs aimed at destroying the traditional basis of Aboriginal life and replacing it with Anglo/Canadian values. An integral part of this exercise was the enfranchisement, or loss of legal Aboriginal identity, of thousands of Aboriginal people between 1876 and 1974 by the government. Enfranchisement, along with the denial of Aboriginal recognition and rights to the Métis, created a population abandoned to the fate of assimilation.

In practice, a substantial shift in federal policy and program orientation has occurred since the early 1950s. The government does not actively restrict the free expression of Indigenous culture; Aboriginal political organizations are recognized and funded; Aboriginal bands and Inuit organizations have taken over responsibility for some government program administration; residential schools and missionary teachers have given way to a mixed system of federal, provincial and Aboriginal/Inuit-run schools funded by Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development (AANDC); and the paternalistic role of Aboriginal agents and bureaucrats has moved towards a technical and professional role.

The federal government has attempted to change Aboriginal policy from one of assimilation to one of self-determination. In 1982, two clauses were added to the Constitution that recognized Aboriginal people as being First Nation, Inuit and Métiswho were entitled to existing Aboriginal and treaty rights. Then, in 1985 the Indian Act was amended to reinstate some of those individuals who had involuntarily lost their Indian status, as defined in the Act. The majority of people affected were women who had lost status upon marriage to a Non-Status male. (See also Aboriginal Women’s Issues).

In addition to the federal programs available to all Canadians (family allowance, old age security, employment insurance), Status Indians also receive exemption from income tax earned on a reserve; medical benefits not covered by universal provincial medical insurance (including dental care); partial exemption from federal and provincial sales tax; subsidized housing; and post-secondary support. The federal government supports Aboriginal reserve communities in the realms of education, health, social assistance and social services, housing, community infrastructure, culture, band government and economic development.

In accordance with the general trend towards encouraging Aboriginal self-determination rather than federal paternalism, in 2011 80 per cent of the money for these programs was administered by First Nations bands or other Aboriginal institutions. Health care is one example. Since 1945, public health services have been provided to bands by the Department of National Health and Welfare, and after 1962 by the Medical Services Branch of Health Canada. In 2000, Medical Services was renamed theFirst Nations and Inuit Health Branch. Increasingly, public health programs, health liaison workers and public health nurses are being managed by band health committees.

According to the 1996 final report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP), federal government expenditures on Aboriginal programs totalled $1.65 billion in the fiscal year 1981–82; the estimates for 1995–96 totalled $6.2 billion. Over the 10-year period from 1981–82 to 1991–92, expenditures increased as a share of overall federal government spending, from 2.9 per cent to 3.7 per cent. From 1991–92 to 1995–96, the percentage of spending on Aboriginal programs as a share of total federal expenditures further increased from 3.7 per cent to 4.9 per cent.

The RCAP concluded that this increase was “driven largely by an escalating need for basic services — education, health and social assistance — to a rapidly growing population that has become more economically dependent.” The annual performance report for the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs for 1995–96 concurred that providing province-like basic services such as education, social services, community facilities and band government to an increasing on-reserve population encompassed 80 per cent of its programming budget.

Spending by AANDC in the 2013–14 fiscal year totalled $8 billion, according to the Department’s 2013–14 Departmental Performance Report. AANDC’s mandate is to support Aboriginal peoples and Northerners “in their efforts to improve social well-being and economic prosperity; develop healthier, more sustainable communities; and participate more fully in Canada’s political, social and economic development.” The 2013–14 performance report was categorized according to four “strategic outcomes”: The Government; The People; The Land and Economy; and The North.

The Government

This category involved spending approximately $1.7 billion on supporting and building the capacity of First Nations governments, as well as negotiating and implementing land claims and modern-day treaties. Four hundred and eighty-four million dollars of this $1.7 billion was spent on activities such as providing assistance to establish governance and associated capacities, processes, and mechanisms (for example, by-law making authority and election processes). Four hundred and eighty-five million dollars was spent on negotiating self-government and other agreements, and addressing land claims and other historic grievances. Additionally, $715 million was spent on “treaty management,” such as implementing the terms of modern-day treaties.

The People

In 2013–14 this category entailed spending approximately $4.1 billion on education, social development, “individual affairs,” and the process of residential school resolution and reconciliation.

In 2013–14, the amount spent on elementary and secondary education was $1.4 billion. Aboriginal Affairs (AANDC) stated that its goal was providing on-reserve students with education services comparable to those of the province in which the reserve is located, and that the funding is used for teachers’ salaries and instructional services in the band-operated schools and the seven federal schools. In addition, it was reported that $341 million was spent in order to “help increase access and enable success in post-secondary education for eligible First Nation and Inuit students.” The total in 2013–14 (compared to the $1.1 billion in 1995–96) was $1.8 billion.

In 2013–14, AANDC reported spending $1.7 billion for “social development” purposes including income assistance, and child and family services. Managing individual affairs (such as paying treaty annuities) totalled another $34 million, and residential school resolution (including payments to residential school survivors and commemoration) cost $574 million.

The Land and Economy

“The Land and Economy” strategy entailed spending roughly $1.4 billion on four different categories: community infrastructure; the federal administration of reserve land; Aboriginal economic development; and urban Aboriginal participation.

All told, AANDC spent approximately $1 billion in 2013–14 on community infrastructure (which includes providing school facilities and other community buildings; housing; roads and bridges; and water, wastewater and electrical services). With particular regard to housing, AANDC funds the construction of houses on-reserve and the purchase of houses off-reserve. The Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) funds some on-reserve housing; under its rural Aboriginal housing and rehabilitation programs, it accepts Aboriginal bands, tribal councils, Métis, and non-status Aboriginal and Inuit organizations as non-profit housing societies for funding purposes. AANDC ($245 million) and CMHC ($103 million) funding for housing was $348 million in 1994–95. In 2013–14, the level of Government of Canada funding through AANDC and CMHC was reported to be an average of $300 million per year to help provide “safe and affordable housing units on reserves across Canada.”

The federal administration of reserve land — which includes environmental management, additions to reserves and the creation of new reserves — cost roughly $133 million in 2013–14.

In 2013–14, AANDC spent $225 million on a variety of economic development initiatives, including strengthening Aboriginal entrepreneurship, investing in Aboriginal “human capital” and developing Aboriginal assets (such as managing oil and gas resources).

The North

“The North” category involved spending $422 million on three different types of programs: Northern Governance and People; Northern Science and Technology; and Northern Land, Resources and Environmental Management.

Food security in the North is an issue dealt with by Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal community members alike. In November 2014, the Auditor General of Canada, Michael Ferguson, released a report on Nutrition North Canada, which had replaced the Food Mail transportation subsidy, in 2011. The report brought criticism to Nutrition North as it revealed the program had no way of verifying that subsidies were passed on to consumers in the form of reduced prices. In addition, funds were in some cases distributed unequally, as need was not being determined by current status, but rather by past usage of the Food Mail program. The auditor general made a series of recommendations, all of which Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada accepted as necessary.

Cultural and Urban Support

An additional approximately $376 million was spent in 2013–14 on strategies involving urban Aboriginal peoples, including Métis and Non-Status Indians.

Canadian Heritage was formerly involved in the funding cultural development programs, Aboriginal-operated cultural centres, Aboriginal women's organizations, and Aboriginal artists and cultural projects, as well as a network of friendship centres that provide cultural support, and social and informational services to Aboriginal peoples in urban centres. In 2012, the following programs were transferred from Canadian Heritage: Aboriginal Friendship Centres, Cultural Connections for Aboriginal Youth and Young Canada Works for Aboriginal Urban Youth. These programs were combined to create the new Urban Aboriginal Participation program, and AANDC spent approximately $52 million on them in 2013–14.

Decisions on what programs and services to provide to Aboriginal peoples and at what levels they should be funded are primarily influenced by the overall political and economic agenda of the federal government. Aboriginal priorities and needs are an important, but secondary, influence on policy and program development. Increasingly, Aboriginal peoples are demanding the right to design and implement their own programs to make them effective in meeting their needs.

Further Reading

  • J.E. Chamberlin,The Harrowing of Eden (1975); DIAND, Indian Conditions: A Survey (1980) and Information: Federal Programs and Service to Aboriginal People (1987); H. Hawthorne, A Survey of the Contemporary Indians of Canada (1966-67); Indian Self-Government in Canada: Report of the Special Committee (1983); Thalassa Research Associates, The Economic Foundation of Indian Self-Government (1983); S.M. Weaver, Making Canadian Indian Policy (1981).

External Links