July 6, 2016
Guest Blog

Partnering with Indigenous Communities: A Challenge for Canadian Grantmakers

By Nicole Rigillo, PhD

Recent media reports and activist campaigns are bringing renewed attention to the challenges facing First Nations, Métis and Inuit (together known as Aboriginal peoples) communities in Canada. The legacies of internal colonialism in Canada have left a schism between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities that can be seen in persistent differences in poverty rates, health outcomes, and educational attainment rates. 175 Aboriginal communities in Canada are unconnected to the electrical grid, and many more find themselves on the other side of a “digital divide”, with limited, slow, and expensive access to telecommunications. Access to affordable food remains a major issue in many Inuit communities. And the lack of adequate mental health services has come to light as a major issue facing some communities, following the one hundred suicides attempted over seven months among the 2,000 residents of the First Nations community of Attawapiskat.

Many assume that these problems can and should be addressed with more government funding. But despite several Supreme Court rulings that mandate the federal government’s fiduciary responsibility towards status Indians and Inuit, as well as Métis and non-status Indians, government funding has been in decline over the past few years. Between 2012 and 2015 Stephen Harper’s Conservative government progressively slashed federal funding to Aboriginal organizations by $60 million dollars, with Inuit organizations facing the steepest cuts. While the Liberal government’s March budget announced increases in funding to Aboriginal communities over the next four years, decades of neglect and underfunding will likely continue to pose challenges – challenges that Canadian grantmakers could help to address through collaborative support of innovative community-based initiatives.

Canadian grantmaking to Aboriginal beneficiaries and causes, however, remains quite low. According to a study by the Circle on Philanthropy and Aboriginal Peoples in Canada, in 2011 only 6% of Canadian grantmaking foundations gave grants to Aboriginal beneficiaries or causes.  The majority of these were made by 33 Canadian foundations that had missions or mandates that prioritized funding for Aboriginal-dedicated charities – among them the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, the Calgary Foundation, and the Hamilton Community Foundation. Still, even the dollar value of grants given by these foundations tended to be significantly lower than the national average, amounting to only 62% of the size ($58,000) of the average grant given by Canadian foundations.[1]  Funders that gave to Aboriginal-dedicated charities therefore tended to make smaller grants when compared to other foundations by province. Further, looking across all provinces, these funders gave about average or smaller grants to Aboriginal-dedicated charities than they gave to other grant recipients.

Why aren’t grantmakers beyond this small group supporting Aboriginal beneficiaries and causes in Canada? The Circle on Philanthropy and Aboriginal People in Canada has identified some of the major barriers: the perception that federal funding is adequate, grantmakers’ social and geographical distance from Aboriginal communities, and a lack of clarity concerning the eligibility of First Nations reserves to receive foundation grants, since not all are registered as qualified donees with the Canada Revenue Agency. Some grantmakers also believe that funding for Aboriginal peoples is the responsibility of government, and fear that an increased grantmaking presence might cause the government to renege on its responsibilities.[2] The Liberal government’s recent increase in funding to Aboriginal communities after decades of Conservative retrenchment seem to suggest however that such decisions are deeply informed by the political and economic prerogatives the ruling party, rather than by the presence of grantmakers.

Canadian foundations are well-poised to fund innovative community-based solutions designed by or in collaboration with Aboriginal peoples, and there are many successful examples to draw on: Dechinta University, IndigenEYEZ, and the Martin Aboriginal Education Initiative, to name just a few.

For grantmakers seeking information on how to best engage in the Aboriginal grantmaking economy, The Circle on Philanthropy and Aboriginal People in Canada offers a wealth of resources and guidance, and can help incorporate grantmakers into collaborative circles with governmental and corporate funding partners. American foundations wishing to donate to Aboriginal organizations in Canada can make gifts through the Tides Foundation’s International Gift Matching Program, which has provided over 100 Canadian charities with over $40 million in support. In addition to giving to charities, grantmakers can also engage in receipted giving directly to First Nations bands, the basic unit of government for those peoples subject to the Indian Act. A listing of bands registered with the Canada Revenue Agency as qualified donees, as municipal or public bodies performing a function of government in Canada, can be found here.

Top Canadian Funders of Aboriginal Beneficiaries and Causes, by Asset Base[3]

  • MasterCard Foundation
  • W. McConnell Family Foundation
  • Winnipeg Foundation
  • Calgary Foundation
  • Hamilton Community Foundation
  • Ivey Foundation
  • Atkinson Charitable Foundation
  • Centraide of Greater Montreal
  • The Counselling Foundation of Canada
  • Walter and Duncan Gordon Foundation
  • Jackman Foundation
  • United Way of Winnipeg

Further resources:

Funding Indigenous Peoples: Strategies for Support – Grantcraft and International Funders for Indigenous Peoples

Successfully funding First Nations Communities in Canada in Compliance with CRA Guidelines – Mark Blumberg

How does Native Funding Work? – CBC

7 Questions about First Nations Accountability – CBC

Nicole Rigillo is a Postdoctoral Researcher at LaboMTL. She is currently conducting comparative research on the history and contemporary practice of grantmaking in Canada and the US, and is working on a book based on her PhD research on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) in India.

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[1] The Circle on Philanthropy and Aboriginal People in Canada. Measuring the Circle: Emerging Trends in Philanthropy for First Nations, Metis, and Inuit Communities in Canada. (2014). Pg. 8-9.

[2] The Circle on Philanthropy and Aboriginal Peoples in Canada. Aboriginal Philanthropy in Canada: A Foundation for Understanding. (2010). Pg. 33-35.

[3] The Circle on Philanthropy and Aboriginal People in Canada. Measuring the Circle: Emerging Trends in Philanthropy for First Nations, Metis, and Inuit Communities in Canada. (2014). Pg. 12-13.

  • Barry Cole


    We should use this material as background support for a meeting of foundations that are involved in supporting First Nations initiatives.


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