Evidence of meeting #54 for Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development in the 39th Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was aboriginal.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

11:30 a.m.

Conservative

Jim Prentice Calgary Centre-North, AB

Fortunately, we have two hours.

11:30 a.m.

Liberal

Anita Neville Winnipeg South Centre, MB

Thank you.

11:30 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Colin Mayes

Maybe we can continue on that question in the next round.

Mr. Lemay, please.

11:30 a.m.

Bloc

Marc Lemay Abitibi—Témiscamingue, QC

Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I would also like to thank the minister and his team for being here today.

Minister, I would like to begin by drawing your attention to the presence of Mr. Ghislain Picard, Regional Chief of the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador. He is accompanied by a number of young people, parents and children—not all of whom fit into this room—who are concerned about the education available to first nations people, particularly in Quebec. With your permission, this is a subject that I will return to in a few moments.

Minister, I have here a document. There is no way that you cannot be familiar with it, as it comes from your department. It is called "The Funding of Basic Services for First Nations: Cost Indicators, Annex F, Consolidation Report, November 2006".

The document states—and I will quote it to avoid any ambiguity—that even with budget 2007-2008, there would still be an annual shortfall of $938 million just in terms of what is needed to ensure equality of services. I will not go into all the details, I imagine that you are familiar with the document. I find this situation extremely worrying.

I read your presentation and was struck by a comment that you made on page 27. You said: "I have said before that simply continuing to fund existing programs without considering their validity or efficiency is not good enough."

As the presenter of a well-known Quebec television show would say, now for the killer question. Minister, are you freezing first nations funding while you study the validity and efficiency of existing programs? It seems to me that you are. I hope that you will tell me that I am mistaken. This is not about political point scoring, I am concerned about the education available to first nations people. How is it that since 1998—and here I point the finger of blame at those seated to my right—the first nations funding formula has never factored in the cost of equipping schools with IT resources? In plain English, there is not a computer to be seen. How is it that our young first nations students do not have computers in their schools?

There is also the matter of the cost of running school libraries—there's no money for libraries. I have seen that with my own eyes in Pikogan, in my riding, and in Timiskaming First Nation. I have seen for myself. Furthermore, no provision is made for professional development training. Why is that? There is no provision for extracurricular activities such as sport and recreation.

11:35 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Colin Mayes

Mr. Lemay, you have three minutes for an answer.

11:35 a.m.

Bloc

Marc Lemay Abitibi—Témiscamingue, QC

My question was clear, and it calls for a clear answer.

11:35 a.m.

Conservative

Jim Prentice Calgary Centre-North, AB

Thank you, I greatly appreciate your questions—and there were many!

Let me deal first with the issue of the expenditures and the document of November 2006, to which you're referring.

This refers to certain basic services that are provided by first nations and funded in part by the Government of Canada. What that does not reflect are the additional investments that this government has made. They do not reflect, for example, the $300 million included in budget 2006 for off-reserve housing; nor the $300 million in budget 2006 for northern housing; nor the $150 million, additional, in budget 2006 supplied to education, family services, women, children--those kinds of issues--nor does it include the $300 million applied to on-reserve funding for a private housing initiative this year. All of those are incremental to and in addition to what you're speaking of in terms of the Government of Canada's programs and services.

So you need to look at the overall picture, which is a $10.2 billion envelope of program and service expenditures, the vast majority of which is administered to on-reserve citizens and the vast majority of which is administered by first nations themselves.

In terms of education, there's much we could say about education, and one could go back to the era of the residential school situation. In the time since then, the Government of Canada has been working towards a system in which there are individual funding arrangements for individual first nations. The Government of Canada essentially puts forward $1.667 billion per year towards education. Of that, $1.123 billion is expended on elementary and secondary education; $314 million, as you know from your study, on post-secondary education; $229 million on other issues, which includes special education and also administration.

The dollars that are being expended are, in total, expended on about 125,000 children in schools. If you do the math, you'll see that this works out to something in the neighbourhood of $10,000 per student, in terms of actual dollars that are provided. The comparison that many people make is to what is being spent in the provincial school system. It is roughly comparable. It is slightly less than in some provinces, slightly more than in others. With some of the provinces, like Alberta, which are extremely well funded, it is difficult to keep up. By and large it is a fair comparative expenditure.

One of the challenges we do face is the large cost of capital investments in remote communities for the construction of schools. For a school that might typically cost $9 million or $10 million to build in southern Canada, in Ontario or Quebec, costs are running at $20 million to $30 million in northern communities, especially communities where everything has to be brought in on winter roads. We continue to wrestle with those issues.

I've made it very clear that education is a priority. There are no funding cuts to education. That is not the case. There's no funding being stopped to education authorities. Rather, we're trying to work forward with the British Columbia model, taking it to other provinces, Quebec included, because it is first nation driven. It will create a school system with the support of first nations that will work hand in hand with the adjoining provincial school system to give first nation children the opportunities they need.

Mr. Lemay, I agree with your sentiment that nothing we do is more important than education.

11:40 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Colin Mayes

Thank you, Mr. Minister.

Madam Crowder, please.

11:40 a.m.

NDP

Jean Crowder Nanaimo—Cowichan, BC

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Thank you, Minister, for coming before the committee today.

I also want to acknowledge the elders, chiefs, and young people who came here to bear witness today. It's an important event for people to come to hear about the issues that the Canadian government is discussing.

When you came before the committee back in 2006, I raised the issue of the funding for the B.C. Treaty Commission. In the estimates for 2006-07 there was a specific line for funding for that of $0.2 million, and I couldn't find it in this year's estimates. I just want to confirm that funding for the B.C. Treaty Commission process is still there.

I also want to come back to education. You have publicly stated your commitment to the importance of education. As you know, this committee looked at post-secondary education, but there are a couple of things on which we need clarification.

There's a well-acknowledged 2% cap that's been in place since 1996. The Auditor General herself has pointed out that on-reserve population growth is far above the Canadian average. In the cost drivers project that the department put together, they said funding shortfalls needed to be met for education around internal reallocation of resources. They said that expenditure for instructional services for students in provincial schools was growing at twice the rate as the same expenditure for band-operated schools. They said the socio-economic influences are often not taken into consideration, so the real costs for remedial programs related to basic skills, nutrition programs, extracurricular programs associated with sports and recreation, and after-school programs that enhance the school experience are not taken into consideration. I know that the lack of progress on the band-operated funding formula is causing great distress amongst communities across this country.

In addition to that, in the estimates for 2006-07--and I realize these are estimates--when you look at the funds allocated for education activity, in 2006 they projected spending $1.66 billion. The projection for 2007-08 was about $1.8 billion, but when we come to the figures in the actual 2007-08 estimates it's $1.67 billion. So it seems that in 2006-07, when the estimates were created, they projected an increased need, yet it dropped fairly significantly when the actual estimates were put forward for 2007-08.

In addition, you raised the issue that an average of $10,000 goes to a band for the education of children on reserves. I know that a number of band-operated schools don't get anywhere near the $10,000; some are getting $7,200 or less. In many rural and remote communities that additional money required to operate in a rural and remote community.... I have a study done through the First Nations Education Council that says provinces all across Canada actually recognize these differences and fund anywhere between $10,000 and $21,000.

So I guess there are two questions. First, given that in 2006-07 the government projected spending $1.7 billion and it's actually come down substantially to $1.6 billion, what has changed? We know the need has increased. What is the government doing to address the very serious needs in rural and remote communities due to the gap in funding between what the government is providing and what the province is providing? Perhaps you could also answer the question on the B.C. Treaty Commission.

11:45 a.m.

Conservative

Jim Prentice Calgary Centre-North, AB

Thank you for those good questions.

On the B.C. Treaty Commission and the $0.2 million, I'm not sure which line entry you're referring to, but it doesn't matter. The important point is that we just recently advanced the annual allotment to the B.C. Treaty Commission, which, as I recall from memory, was about $35 million. And we carry on with the B.C. treaty process, which is fully funded right through to 2009.

11:45 a.m.

NDP

Jean Crowder Nanaimo—Cowichan, BC

[Inaudible--Editor]

11:45 a.m.

Conservative

Jim Prentice Calgary Centre-North, AB

Absolutely. There's no change of anything there.

Now, I will tell you—and I'm sure you have thoughts about this that you and I haven't had a chance to exchange yet—there are significant questions being asked about the B.C. treaty process. The Auditor General has offered comments about it. At this point, as a nation, we have invested close to $1 billion on the negotiations in British Columbia. With the exception of the three agreements that I initialled, as minister, there have been no agreements reached under that system. So it has raised some significant questions about why and what the problems are and what kinds of changes need to be made.

That's another dialogue that you and I can have, but I can assure you that the B.C. treaty process continues to be funded and moved forward at an inexorable pace.

In terms of your second question, the difference between the projection of $1.79 billion and the supplementary estimates of $1.6 billion, I'll have to determine why we have that difference. It's certainly not a case of reducing expenditures. In fact, I can tell you, above and beyond the education numbers that we're talking about--the $1.6 billion--we have been making additional capital investments. In the last six months alone, I've announced new schools that would total over $60 million in a variety of locations.

We try to be responsive to the needs of individual communities. You're aware I went to Pikangikum. Maybe it's useful to focus on a specific illustration, but I went to Pikangikum and I found a community of about 2,000 people, and a school built for 300 children with 700 children in it. No one, to this point, had done anything about that. I met with the community. We announced capital investments into Pikangikum of $47 million to ensure that the community has, first, hydro, followed by sewer and water, and a new school as part of that. As I recall, the school was about $17 million. So those are the kinds of steps we need to make on individual communities.

The biggest challenge with the education system, I would submit, is not the dollars per se; it is rather the absence of an overall school system that individual schools are part of. Previous governments have created a system in this country where individual first nation schools are one-off schools operating outside any school system. It's fair to say that it's not working very well. We are achieving the lowest educational outcomes certainly anywhere in Canada, and amongst the lowest in any western democracy, from this approach.

The first step to change that is what you and I both know we've done in British Columbia. The challenge is to now move that forward across the country, make the structural changes, and deal with the funding issues. At the end of the day, we currently operate in a circumstance where all of this money is going to first nations. It is not being frittered away on administration. The Department of Indian and Northern Affairs has only 34 people working in the education area, so virtually all of the dollars we're talking about make their way through to first nation communities, which are then responsible for running their own schools.

11:50 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Colin Mayes

Thank you, Mr. Minister.

To the government side, Mr. Bruinooge, please.

11:50 a.m.

Conservative

Rod Bruinooge Winnipeg South, MB

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Thank you, Minister Prentice, for coming today before our committee.

Perhaps we could get you to talk a bit about the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. I know that it was one of your priorities upon taking office, but sometimes I think, as parliamentarians, we forget that we sat for the first time in early April 2006, and it was in May that this agreement was ratified. As a new parliamentarian, I thought that was just a “par for the course” kind of government operation. But now that I've been here a year, I realize this was rather expedited.

So I guess my question would be more along the lines of whether you could give further detail to the way the agreement has unfolded, subsequent to that expedited ratification in May of last year, and talk a bit about some of the advance payments.

I have a few more questions, as well, after that.

11:50 a.m.

Conservative

Jim Prentice Calgary Centre-North, AB

Thank you.

The residential school agreement is something, of course, of historic importance. It was pulled together in pretty incredible time, as one looks back at this point, but I think it's an agreement that all Canadians can take pride in. It involved a court ratification process that, of course, we had to work through, which is not actually completely finished yet. The ratification process required the approval of judges in nine different jurisdictions. Those approvals have now been secured. We're now into what is known as the opt-out period, which completes or expires about mid-September. Once we're through the opt-out period, assuming everything is set to go, we will be into the actual rollout of the common experience payments. The common experience payments are budgeted to be $1.9 billion. They should be in the hands of most first nations citizens by this fall, the latter part of the year.

I think you're aware, as well, that in addition to that there was $125 million provided to the Aboriginal Healing Foundation. Since the court approval doesn't vest until this fall, we found it necessary to provide bridge financing to the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, and that has been put in place. So that has been taken care of. We're also dealing with the legal fee issues, and moving forward on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which is budgeted for another $60 million.

I must say, of the many positive aspects of the agreement, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, I think, is first and foremost about our coming to grips with all of this as a country, and it's something I believe in quite fervently, going back to my days in opposition and experience I've previously had in South Africa. But my sense is that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the work that they do will help achieve healing for this country. I've already seen indications that this in fact is happening and that it will be a great success in that regard.

We're now engaged in the process of selecting the commissioners, the three distinguished Canadians who will, at the end of the day, head up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. We've actually engaged in a process to select the process by which these people will be selected, so that there can be no criticism whatsoever that they are respected Canadians, known for their integrity beyond criticism or reproach, and they will head this up. We're all looking forward to that. It's going to be very exciting, and I think it will help us achieve closure. So this is an historic agreement on which we are well along to the implementation.

I can tell you the numbers of payments that we expect. We've also provided advance payments to the elderly, and that, of course, has been taken care of over the past many months. The total value of the payments to the elderly was $82.6 million, and as I recall, there were approximately 13,500 people who applied. Those are the numbers in terms of the advance payments to the elderly. The anticipated recipients of the residential school common experience payments are, of course, much more numerous, expected to be in the vicinity of about 80,000 first nation Canadians.

So it's a great-news story, and we're moving forward. It's important as a country to put this behind us, and I'm satisfied that in the fullness of time we will.