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

12:20 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Colin Mayes

Thank you, Mr. Minister.

Mr. Storseth, please.

12:20 p.m.

Conservative

Brian Storseth Westlock—St. Paul, AB

Thank you, Mr. Minister, for coming forward to discuss the main estimates with this committee today. I have to admit I think the committee is a little disappointed. When we first arranged to have you here for two hours, I believe all members were hoping to have Bill C-44 passed. Hopefully your presence will inspire some renewed invigoration of this file.

Minister, I want to say that in my constituency people are very impressed with the leadership you have shown on this file; leadership in going to places like Pikanjikum and seeing these issues first-hand and being willing to tackle these things first-hand when other members of Parliament, quite frankly, aren't willing to go there to do some of this dirty work.

Minister, water safety is an issue that is all too often taken for granted by average Canadians. In my area, however, having access to safe drinking water is unfortunately something that many of our first nations people on reserve have long been denied. The department's main estimates include a sizeable increase in funding for water safety initiatives.

Could you please outline for our committee, Minister, the direction you are taking to ensure safe water for first nations people living on reserve?

12:20 p.m.

Conservative

Jim Prentice Calgary Centre-North, AB

Thank you very much, and thank you for your kind comments.

One of the visitations I know you're referring to was my trip to Pikangikum. I had suggested that members of this committee might go there, either alone or with me, to meet people in the Pikangikum community, and I must say this government has responded to the circumstances we found in that community. Drinking water is an issue in that community because there is no hydro connection in Pikangikum, and since there's no hydro connection, it's impossible to electrify the pipes so that there's running water or running sewer.

I would say—and people need to know this—that all the people of Pikangikum had to show for their relationship with the previous government was an acrimonious lawsuit that had been going on and, frankly, an expenditure of $7 million to run a hydro line into the community, but which resulted in power poles basically lying around on the ground and outdated equipment being stored in Quonset huts. The power line was not advanced 10 feet, despite the expenditure of $7 million.

That's not how this government conducts itself; that's maybe how others have. So we went there and announced a program to connect Pikangikum to hydro, and then to provide water, sewer and a school, with an investment of $47 million in that community.

So those are the sorts of initiatives that we're moving forward with.

On drinking water, when I became the minister I inherited a circumstance where far too many first nations were operating with high-risk drinking water systems. In the previous parliament, we all saw the consequences of that in places like Kashechewan and other communities. I asked for an inventory, when I became the minister, of how many places there were in this country where first nation citizens were at risk because of the quality of the drinking water. I was told, after all the material was assembled, there were 193 communities where first nation Canadians were operating with high-risk, or worse, drinking water systems. And what is worse than high-risk is a community being at risk, and there were 21 of those communities that we inherited from the previous administration.

We've taken real steps to reduce those numbers. The number of 193 has been reduced down to 97 at last count, and we've dealt with as many of the 21 communities as we can. Some of those require investments and actual construction of new water plants, and we're making significant progress.

I've just had meetings with the Government of Saskatchewan and first nation leaders last week. They want Saskatchewan to be the model of the way forward for our country, where we will work together in concert--the Government of Saskatchewan, the Government of Canada, and first nation governments--to ensure that all of the drinking water systems in Saskatchewan are up to standard and that we enact standards that will apply, so that Saskatchewan citizens, aboriginal or non-aboriginal, have the same water standards applying to them, and we can move forward with systems that sometimes are integrated across reserve boundaries.

So we're making progress. It's a big job, and I'm pleased with the progress we've made. Again, it will be necessary to move forward in a legislative way, and legislation will come to this committee, dealing with the way forward, to ensure first nation citizens have the same water standards as other Canadians.

12:25 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Colin Mayes

Thank you.

Madam Crowder, please.

12:25 p.m.

NDP

Jean Crowder Nanaimo—Cowichan, BC

Thank you, Chair.

I'm sure the minister is well aware that we've had 150-plus years of abject neglect, discrimination, assimilation, and even genocidal policies that both Conservatives and Liberal governments need to own. It hasn't just been a favourite phrase in the House of the last 13 years. There has been over a century of neglect.

There are a number of line items that I could address in the budget. But I think the overall issue comes down to what is commonly referred to as the 2% cap, when, by comparison, the CHT and CST payments to the provinces are rising by 6.6% per year and are protected by legislation against inflation.

The Auditor General pointed out that funding for first nations programs has increased, but not at the rate equal to population growth. She goes on to talk about the fact that the average increase worked out to 1.6%, excluding inflation, but the population actually increased by 11.2%.

In the department's own cost driver document, it says: The rationale is that after nine years of a 2 percent cap the time has come to fund First Nations basic service costs so that population and price growth are covered in the new and subsequent years. Over the period of the 2 percent cap departmental per capita constant dollar expenditures for basic services have declined by six percent.

When I look at the estimates that come before us and the department's own extensive work on the serious underfunding in housing, water, education, economic development, and land claims, in almost every single category the department itself has identified serious underfunding. The Auditor General has identified serious underfunding.

Although there are some increases in the proposed funding, when you make statements such as that Bill C-44 will allow a woman to file a complaint about quality child care, you and I both know she can file a complaint until the cows come home; if you don't provide the funding, she can't access quality child care anyway.

What is the government's plan to address the issues that have been identified in the cost driver project about the consistent underfunding as a result of the 2% cap?

12:25 p.m.

Conservative

Jim Prentice Calgary Centre-North, AB

First, I don't agree with the premise of your question.

In terms of the expenditures the Government of Canada makes, we can isolate the 2% cap issue that relates to some of the expenditures. I'm happy to talk about that.

At the end of the day, the reality is that the Government of Canada expends $10.2 billion on programs and services that are largely directed to 448,000 on-reserve citizens in this country. It is a very significant amount of money. First and foremost, we need to ensure those dollars are well targeted and well expended and that we are getting results. We're working on that.

In addition, in terms of the 2% cost driver analysis you're talking about, I made the point earlier that it does not reflect all of the other expenditures that have been built into the last two budgets of this Conservative government, which provide for increases in expenditures in targeted areas where we wish to see results, and that includes women, children, and education.

The $10.2 billion therefore reflects other expenditures that are not capped in any way and have been put forward as single approval payments to deal with many of these issues.

The other assumption that underlies your concern relates to the percentage of the cost of governmental services in first nations that should be borne by the Government of Canada. Is it 100 cents on the dollar? Do you advocate a situation where 100 cents on every dollar expended by a first nations government comes from the Government of Canada?

12:30 p.m.

NDP

Jean Crowder Nanaimo—Cowichan, BC

I think it would make sense to sit down with first nations and develop a plan to address this on a nation-to-nation basis. The Government of Canada took on a responsibility over 150 years ago that it can't now abandon because, in their view, it's become far too expensive.

12:30 p.m.

Conservative

Jim Prentice Calgary Centre-North, AB

I'm not suggesting that it be abandoned, by any means. This government is expending $10.2 billion. That's $1.1 billion more than the previous Liberal government expended on aboriginal programs and services. It's a very large amount of funding.

12:30 p.m.

NDP

Jean Crowder Nanaimo—Cowichan, BC

But that also includes the hundreds of Department of Justice lawyers who the government pays to actually fight court claims. Are you saying that the $10.2 billion doesn't include the Department of Justice?

12:30 p.m.

Conservative

Jim Prentice Calgary Centre-North, AB

I don't believe it includes the Department of Justice. It includes expenditures on the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, but that's like 4% in terms of administration costs. Most of this money, the lion's share of this money, is paid out as grants and contributions by the Government of Canada to first nations, which are then responsible for the expenditures.

12:30 p.m.

NDP

Jean Crowder Nanaimo—Cowichan, BC

That's $5 billion to $6 billion, but that's not the other $4 billion.

12:30 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Colin Mayes

Thank you.

We're moving on to Mr. Blaney, please.

May 29th, 2007 / 12:30 p.m.

Conservative

Steven Blaney Lévis—Bellechasse, QC

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

Firstly, allow me to welcome both the minister, who is here for a third time with his highly experienced team, and the Regional Chief of the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador, Mr. Ghislain Picard. I see that the Chief of the Témiscamingue First Nation is also here, as well as community representatives and people who work in education in Quebec, such as Mr. Whiteduck. I would like to extend a warm welcome to them and point out that they are always welcome at any of our committee meetings.

As you know, Minister, since you were also there, Quebec representatives recently met at the first nations socio-economic forum. Education was amongst the subjects on the agenda and a commitment was made with regard to the aboriginal pavilion and an agreement was signed with the majority of Quebec first nations.

Housing was also discussed at the forum. In your presentation this morning, you mentioned what I believe to be a crucial program—the first nations market housing fund. You spoke about developing approximately 25,000 new housing units over the next 10 years. Three hundred million dollars have been earmarked for the fund for 2007. At the first nations socio-economic forum, it was agreed that an innovative approach to housing was required in order to reduce the gap between supply and demand.

I would like you to begin by telling us how your housing initiative will reduce this gap, particularly in Quebec.

12:30 p.m.

Conservative

Jim Prentice Calgary Centre-North, AB

Thank you.

The figure of 25,000 housing units is an assessment of the shortfall. Not everyone agrees on what that figure is. There are many who think it's significantly higher. But the 25,000 is the department's assessment of the shortfall of houses amongst first nation citizens.

The issue becomes how to address that shortfall. Should every single one of those houses be a social house, provided by the Government of Canada? Or are there first nations citizens who are interested in owning their own property? We know that across Canada--I hope in Quebec--there are first nations that wish to come forward and have private housing, on reserve, owned by the first nations citizens themselves.

In the context of Quebec, Bill S-6 becomes extremely important, because it is Bill S-6 that provides the clearest and fastest method for first nations to be able to access that opportunity. Again, it's very surprising that this wasn't done previously, but essentially first nations in Quebec have not had the same opportunities as other first nations have had in Canada. Other first nations have essentially been able to move out from under the Indian Act in cases where they are ready, willing, and able, and that hasn't been possible in the same way in Quebec because of the absence of legislation. So Bill S-6 remedies that, and it's one of the reasons I'd like to see that bill through the House, from the Senate into the House, approved immediately, because there are first nations in Quebec that wish to move forward on private housing.

The other thing I would emphasize, because there has been some scare-mongering on this, is that the concept of private on-reserve housing does not equate to a breaking up of Indian reserves and disposition of land. The way in which this has been structured, it allows first nation communities to continue to hold their land base collectively, but through things such as certificates of possession or essentially the equivalent of a long-term lease, it allows individual citizens to own their own property. There is no risk that it will lead to a balkanization, a dismemberment of reserves. That's not the point.

12:35 p.m.

Conservative

Steven Blaney Lévis—Bellechasse, QC

Thank you, Minister.

The discussion primarily centred on housing in the communities.