Evidence of meeting #17 for Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development in the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was million.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

  • Michael Wernick  Deputy Minister, Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development

3:40 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Chris Warkentin

Committee members, we call this seventeenth meeting to order. The meeting is now in session.

Of course, I'm sure our friends in the media know the considerations of meetings that are in process. We understand that the minister got tied up with the media on his way in, so I'm certain that the questions for him have been asked and answered. It's now time for the committee to have the appropriate amount of time for its own considerations as well.

Minister, we do want to turn it over to you immediately, because we know that our time today is tight.

Madam Bennett.

3:40 p.m.

Liberal

Carolyn Bennett St. Paul's, ON

On a point of order, given that the minister was kind enough to give us a copy of his remarks, which we have now all read, I wonder if we could go straight to questions.

3:40 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Chris Warkentin

I think you may be the only one in the room who has read them. So we will turn it over to you, Minister.

November 30th, 2011 / 3:40 p.m.

Vancouver Island North
B.C.

Conservative

John Duncan Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development

Thank you very much, Chair. I'm pleased to be here today in this committee room, which I think I've spent a little bit of time in before.

Thank you for the opportunity to discuss the supplementary spending estimates of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada. I appreciate the role that the committee plays in reviewing the department's expenditures.

The investments included in supplementary estimates (B) support the Government of Canada's plan to improve the quality of life of aboriginal peoples and northerners across Canada. As members of this committee recognize, this plan includes strategic and important investments in infrastructure, funding for programs and initiatives, and the implementation of agreements such as the Indian residential schools settlement agreement.

I'll do my best to answer your questions in a few minutes. First, though, I'd like to provide details about a few key items listed in supplementary estimates (B). The allotment of $179.4 million to the independent assessment process for the residential schools settlement is the largest single item on the list. This amount includes $136 million in new funding, and $43.4 million reprofiled from last year.

This investment supports the Government of Canada's commitment to respect the terms of the court-ordered Indian residential schools settlement that was agreed by all parties. The additional funding will respond to the increased application levels to the independent assessment process.

The Government of Canada remains committed to concluding agreements with former students and their families. Continuing the implementation of the settlement agreement builds on our government's commitment to moving towards healing, reconciliation, and resolution between aboriginal peoples and other Canadians.

The second largest item in the supplementary estimates is $109.1 million for the assessment, management, and remediation of federal contaminated sites. The Government of Canada is committed to the health and safety of all Canadians. This money will support our government's ongoing efforts for safe and timely environmental cleanup. Our government continues to work closely with first nations, Inuit, and northern communities to remediate contaminated sites. Budget 2011 allocated $68 million over two years to the federal contaminated sites action plan. Most of this investment focuses on priority sites in the north such as the Giant Mine in Yellowknife and the Faro mine. In the past two years, the Government of Canada has committed more than $330 million to projects at hundreds of sites in the north and on reserves across the country.

Mr. Chairman, I'd also like to highlight a few other items listed in the supplementary estimates and explain how they relate to this government's broader goals. Improving the quality and availability of first nations child and family services is a case in point. Significant improvements have been made in recent years as a result of a series of tripartite agreements between Canada, first nations, and provincial governments. The services delivered under these agreements focus on prevention and early intervention, leading to better outcomes for first nations children, youth, and families.

Two items in the estimates support this goal. There is $6 million to fund an agreement in Manitoba, and $1.2 million for a dedicated database to track results. Agreements are already in place in Alberta, Nova Scotia, Saskatchewan, Quebec, and Prince Edward Island. This means that nearly 70% of all first nations children who live on reserve have access to services delivered under the new model. We hope to complete agreements with other jurisdictions in the next few years.

Mr. Chairman, I'd also like to highlight a few other items that are listed. Bill C-22, for instance, which I'm happy to note just received royal assent yesterday, completes an agreement to establish the Eeyou Marine Region and authorizes first nation groups to co-manage and protect islands in James Bay and southeastern Hudson Bay. Bill S-2 proposes to close the legal gap that exists in matrimonial rights and interests on reserve. And Bill C-27, the First Nations Financial Transparency Act, is part of the government's commitment in the 2011 Speech from the Throne to support democratic, transparent, and accountable first nation governments by requiring that chiefs and councillors publish their salaries and expenses and audited consolidated financial statements.

I'm also committed to reintroducing a bill that will propose a mechanism to set standards to safeguard the quality of drinking water in first nation communities.

A goal of these and other legislative initiatives is to create the accountability mechanisms needed to foster economic and social development. This committee will have an important role in moving the agenda forward. I believe the study currently under way on sustainable economic development will be valuable and pertinent.

In June, the Auditor General's status report analyzed why so many Government of Canada programs fail to deliver the intended benefits to first nation communities. The key factor cited in the report is that many programs have no legislative base. Should a program fail, no one can be held accountable. To ensure that programs and investments achieve their goals, this government will continue to develop and implement appropriate legislative remedies in collaboration with our stakeholders.

Another element of the Government of Canada's strategy to promote economic and social development among northern and aboriginal communities is working with willing partners. I'm proud to note that this past June, the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations and I announced the Canada-first nations joint action plan to improve the lives of first nation people across Canada. The action plan expresses our joint commitment to work together to improve the long-term prosperity of first nation people and all Canadians.

Strategic partnerships with provincial and aboriginal groups that continue to improve education outcomes in a growing number of first nation schools are another instance of the work that we do with willing partners. Collaborative initiatives to improve the educational outcomes of first nation students are now under way in seven provinces. Engagement sessions were held last year, helping to inform improvements to aboriginal economic development programs, including efficiencies in program delivery. Strategic partnerships have also inspired significant progress on specific claims and first nation access to safe drinking water.

The Beaufort regional environmental assessment is another example of a strategic partnership, among Inuvialuit, the oil and gas industry, territorial and federal governments, regulators, and academia, to prepare for oil and gas activity in the Beaufort Sea. Together they have supported research and actions that will provide information and data in support of efficient and effective regulatory decisions.

The larger goal of the government's plan is to ensure that all citizens, aboriginal and non-aboriginal alike, can share in and contribute to Canada's prosperity. The investments included in the supplementary estimates are designed to complement existing programs, partnerships, and legislative initiatives. I'm confident that the items under review will lead to further progress for aboriginal peoples, northerners, and all Canadians.

Thank you very much. I'll do my best to answer any questions the members of the committee may have about supplementary estimates (B).

3:50 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Chris Warkentin

Thank you, Minister. We appreciate that testimony.

I didn't say it earlier, but today we are considering votes 1b, 5b, 10b, under Indian Affairs and Northern Development, as well as votes 27b and 29b under Health Canada.

I'm sure you'll be prepared to answer questions as they relate to these supplementary (B) estimates.

We'll begin that questioning with Ms. Duncan, for the first seven minutes.

3:50 p.m.

NDP

Linda Duncan Edmonton—Strathcona, AB

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Thank you, Minister, for attending. Our party has fought long and hard for you to be here. It's regrettable that our time will be so short, but hopefully we'll have some key questions for you in the short time we have been allotted.

You mention, Mr. Minister, the last report by Auditor General Sheila Fraser, in which she slammed your government and the previous Liberal government for a decade of failed action on her recommendations in 15 chapters on Inuit and first nations, and an additional 15 chapters on aboriginal peoples and the delivery of safe drinking water to them, the removal of living conditions on first nations reserves that are worse than elsewhere in Canada, and a high school graduation rate half that of other Canadian students. The problem is clearly greater than Attawapiskat. Thirty reports over a decade by the Auditor General have made that clear. She blamed the government--as you mentioned, Mr. Minister--for structural impediments. You mentioned that you're bringing forward some legislation.

In my second question, I'll get to some concerns that first nations have raised about the process of developing this legislation.

But clearly the Auditor General said it was time to have clear measures to hold the government accountable. She did not point fingers at the first nations. Why then is your first response to the crisis at Attawapiskat to bring in third-party governance when in fact these problems have been known for quite some time? Isn't the pot calling the kettle black on access to information and accountability here?

And is this now a warning to all other first nations as to what may well befall them if they publicly raise their concerns?

3:50 p.m.

Conservative

John Duncan Vancouver Island North, BC

We put officials into the community on Monday. They were there because there was concern about the health and safety of residents of the community. Their on-the-ground take on things was that immediate action is required.

On the basis that, immediate action is required, and the fastest way to respond is to put in third-party management. They are able to manage departmental funds in the way that the first nation would normally manage them. They can respond very quickly. We also left an engineer in the community, so work is now ongoing on renovating some of the homes.

We have mobilized very quickly and I think it's an appropriate response, given the real concerns for the health and safety of Attawapiskat residents.

3:55 p.m.

NDP

Linda Duncan Edmonton—Strathcona, AB

Thanks, Mr. Minister.

You mentioned the legislation you're bringing forward, and the fact that you are collaborating with stakeholders. I'm not sure what that means. I don't know if that means simply the individual first nations.

Of course, Mr. Minister, you're aware that you have a constitutional duty, upheld by the Supreme Court of Canada, to consult, consider, and accommodate aboriginal and treaty rights and interests in advance of any law, policy, or program that potentially may impact first nations.

This summer, as you are aware, I wrote to you--and I'm still waiting for a reply--about my concerns as to whether or not this government was going to revise their policies and practices. The federal court held that the then-federal Minister of the Environment, Jim Prentice, had erred in law by deeming that he did not have to consider the rights and interests of aboriginal peoples when he made decisions under the Species at Risk Act.

I've consulted with first nations across the country and, in particular, I just had a meeting with the grand chiefs of Treaties 6, 7, and 8. They are very concerned and they consider that they are not being adequately consulted on the laws you're bringing forward, including the laws you have mentioned. We've just heard, as I understand, that CEAA has cancelled their consultation process with aboriginals.

The first nations have called for a more collaborative hands-on approach in consulting with them well in advance of any new policies and practices. That of course has been the policy of this government in any policies that might impact provinces and territories.

I wonder what measures you're planning to take to improve, in response to the requests made by the first nations to genuinely consult as per your duty under the Constitution.

3:55 p.m.

Conservative

John Duncan Vancouver Island North, BC

As I said, we've worked with willing partners in the first nations community because we think it's the right thing to do. The legal duty to consult and accommodate is very clear to us. I believe we go well beyond it because we're talking about section 35 rights. When we collaborate on child and family services, when we collaborate on education, when we collaborate on water, when we collaborate on electoral reforms, those are all things that are somewhat discretionary for us to do. But we want to do it because we'll end up with better legislation and support from the first nations leadership. This just makes sense for us to do; we've done a lot of it. That's the philosophy we've been operating under.

In terms of your questions about CEAA and the Species at Risk Act, I'm out of my element on those. That's something you'd have to talk to the environment minister about.

3:55 p.m.

NDP

Linda Duncan Edmonton—Strathcona, AB

Thank you. I have one last question.

Mr. Minister, you mentioned the agreements that you're about to enter into. We're hearing serious concerns about the failure of this government to deliver on its binding obligations, constitutionally entrenched, to deliver on the land claims agreements that it and previous governments have already signed. Can you please advise when you're planning to move on your implementation requirements to the Council for Yukon Indians, to the Nunavut, to the Nisga'a?

3:55 p.m.

Conservative

John Duncan Vancouver Island North, BC

Well, I'm actually meeting with the land claims group that you are referencing. We've made enough serious progress over the last three years really that most of the issues have gone away. Our implementation has been done very well. I may hear of some specific items today, but my understanding is that, for the most part, we've really addressed the whole implementation issue very well.

4 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Chris Warkentin

Thank you, Minister.

Mr. Rickford, for seven minutes.

4 p.m.

Conservative

Greg Rickford Kenora, ON

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Thank you, Minister, for coming here today. We appreciate your time.

Minister, first of all, I took great comfort from your remarks on responding to the Auditor General with respect to a legislative base for many of the large-scale programs and projects. As somebody who has lived in isolated and remote first nations communities for quite some time, I've always appreciated the need for that. I look forward to working with you in those regards.

First of all, I do want to talk a little bit about Attawapiskat. The questions are twofold, Minister. There has been much said in recent days about the state of affairs. Obviously, as a government and like all other Canadians, we want to be able to proceed with an effective plan to help them through the emergency circumstances and to set a platform for longer-term objectives and ensure, ultimately, that families have safe and warm places to live.

I was wondering, then, if you could comment on your actions to fill that void in the short-to-immediate term. Could you comment as well, from the perspective of the department, on some of the uncertainty around the $80 million the community has received from your department? And what you will be doing to ensure that those resources and any further resources from your department for Attawapiskat will be for the ultimate benefit of the community members?

4 p.m.

Conservative

John Duncan Vancouver Island North, BC

Thank you for the question. I know you're quite familiar with northern Ontario and with many of these remote reserve communities, the first nations communities.

I mentioned we've had officials in the community since November 28, which was Monday. They have assessed the situation. They know what's needed to ensure that the residents have access to warm, dry, and safe shelter. These needs are urgent and demand immediate action. As a consequence we've put the first nation into third-party management. Part of the manager's role will be to administer the department's funding. This is normally managed by the first nation. In addition to that, we will be doing a comprehensive audit of spending from the department over the last five years to see why our results have been so poor.

4 p.m.

Conservative

Greg Rickford Kenora, ON

Thank you, Minister.

Now I'm going to shift gears here. My colleagues and I have a number of matters that were addressed in your speech that we'd like some further information on. I'm going to start, Minister, with the state of the implementation of gender equity in the Indian registration act, referring of course to Bill C-3. Could you give us an update in regard to that?