Evidence of meeting #9 for Public Accounts in the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was nations.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

  • Michael Wernick  Deputy Minister, Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development
  • John Wiersema  Interim Auditor General, Office of the Auditor General of Canada
  • Ronnie Campbell  Assistant Auditor General, Office of the Auditor General of Canada
  • Douglas Stewart  Vice-President, Policy and Planning, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation
  • Shelagh Jane Woods  Director General, Primary Health Care and Public Health Directorate, First Nations and Inuit Health Branch, Department of Health

October 24th, 2011 / 4:05 p.m.

Deputy Minister, Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development

Michael Wernick

Thank you for the question.

We actually deal with a fair number of private members' bills and private senators' bills. In terms of government legislation, I hasten to add that the government will decide whether to pursue legislation or not, and Parliament will decide whether to adopt it. There were a number of statements of intention in the Speech from the Throne and the budget to proceed with legislation in this Parliament—and there are others that were being discussed, which will need a cabinet decision as to when and whether they go forward.

To pick up on the question from Ms. Duncan, there are still some first nation consultations to be done before we would think about tabling a bill.

Not strictly speaking in the scope of this chapter, you'll know that Bill S-2 has already been tabled. That's the matrimonial property issue coming back for the fourth time. Hopefully, Parliament will find a way through that in the next little while.

You'll see a number of bills that are related to land claim settlements and treaties. There will probably be at least three or four of those in the next year where you have a specific agreement and you need implementation legislation.

There are probably two that are the most relevant to the chapter. One is water standards legislation. There was a bill on this in the previous Parliament, and we're now in discussions with first nations groups about whether we can make it more palatable. I think you'll see water standards legislation within a matter of months at the outside. That goes straight to one of the issues in the chapter.

The big, elusive one is probably first nations education. We're going through the exercise with a national panel, that is, as a joint project with the Assembly of First Nations—and not without controversy in first nation circles. Once we have that report around Christmas, the minister and the national chief will have to decide how to move forward. I think there's a very good chance of government legislation on first nations education in calendar year 2012.

4:10 p.m.

Interim Auditor General, Office of the Auditor General of Canada

John Wiersema

If I may, Mr. Chairman, I believe the member's question goes to the heart of one of the issues we raised in this report, the issue of improving the legislative base, which is one of the four impediments. I'm not going to tell this committee its business, but one of the recommendations this committee could make is to request from the government exactly the road map you're looking for. That's one of the four impediments. It requires serious attention, Mr. Chairman.

I personally haven't spent a lot of time on first nations reserves, but Mr. Campbell and Mr. Barrett have. Madam Fraser, the former Auditor General, spent a lot of time on reserves, and she and Ronnie and Frank saw what it's like out there. These matters, Mr. Chairman, are serious and they're urgent. We've heard discussion today about a time bomb, or an opportunity. I'm not sure I'll take a position on which they represent, but these are very serious matters. It is not pleasant out there. The Government of Canada and first nations have been dealing with this for some time.

I believe we need clarity and urgent action on all four pillars, including the legislative pillar, if we're going to deal with what the former Auditor General called an unacceptable situation out there.

Thank you.

4:10 p.m.

NDP

The Chair David Christopherson

You have 10 seconds, Mr. Byrne.

4:10 p.m.

Liberal

Gerry Byrne Humber—St. Barbe—Baie Verte, NL

Mr. Campbell, you may not appear again before our committee in the capacity of auditor of Indian and Northern Affairs and first nations governance. So I just want to say thank you very much for your service.

I understand that you're moving to a different duty within the Office of the Auditor General. So thank you very much.

4:10 p.m.

Assistant Auditor General, Office of the Auditor General of Canada

4:10 p.m.

NDP

The Chair David Christopherson

Perhaps through other questioning, we can get the responses you're looking for from Mr. Campbell. Thank you very much.

We'll go over to Mr. Aspin. You have the floor, sir.

4:10 p.m.

Conservative

Jay Aspin Nipissing—Timiskaming, ON

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

My question could be classified as a background question. To Mr. Wernick, in 2008 the Prime Minister issued a statement of apology to former students of Indian residential schools. Sir, could you elaborate on what has happened since that time, particularly with regard to advancing reconciliation with aboriginal peoples?

4:10 p.m.

Deputy Minister, Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development

Michael Wernick

Thank you for the question.

I also think that was an important moment in Parliament's history. I remember the day very well.

At some level, reconciliation is achieved every time we deal with an historic issue, if there's a land claim issue or a piece of litigation. Or in the specific claims area, there are grievances about transactions that the Government of Canada made in the past, which were seen as, or were, unfair to first nations in many cases. All of those settlements that bring a bit of closure to the past are a part of reconciliation.

In terms of the residential schools agreement and the Canadians who went to residential schools and whose families and communities were affected, the first job is the steady implementation of that settlement agreement, which started in 2006. We're a little bit past the halfway mark on that. We've dealt with the common experience payment by and large. We're working our way through other parts of the settlement agreement, some of which involve commemoration projects in making sure that history isn't forgotten. And some of it involves the Truth and Reconciliation Commission itself, which is travelling around the country and will be in Halifax this week to have another one of its national events. So that's an important part of it.

Just to answer about another sort of a legislative possibility, which is really purely symbolic in terms of its effect but still an important part of the reconciliation, Minister Strahl committed at the Winnipeg event of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to see if we could find legislation that would wipe off the statutes of Canada all of the provisions that created the residential school system in the first place. I'm hoping that it's a bill that this Parliament will see this fall, as well.

4:15 p.m.

Conservative

Jay Aspin Nipissing—Timiskaming, ON

Thank you, sir.

You will also recall that the Government of Canada launched an action plan to reform the administration of grants and contributions, G and Cs. Under this action plan, programs and departments were given additional flexibilities for the management of transfer payments. Has the department used these flexibilities to benefit first nations, Inuit, and other recipients?

4:15 p.m.

Deputy Minister, Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development

Michael Wernick

Yes, and this is one of the areas where the picture has improved a little bit since the snapshot was taken by the Auditor General almost a year ago. They caught us partially implementing some of the flexibilities that the transfer payment policy provides.

I do want to go on the record again and say that making a better tool out of contribution agreements is not a complete answer. We over-rely on contribution agreements as a tool. But that being said, I think we can make them smarter and more flexible, and lessen some of the paper burden and bureaucratic overload on first nations. That's a topic the Auditor General has gone back to many times.

We have now been able to hammer out more standard language, language that is common to us and other funding departments. Last year there were about 250 multi-year agreements. We're at well over 750 now. There are some agreements now that are five-years, some that are seven-years, and I think we even have one that is ten-years long agreement. So that has certainly reduced the burden of constant renegotiation of these agreements.

We are working on a couple of pilot projects to see if we can have a single agreement across three or four departments that's a lot easier for the first nation to deal with. There's a very good pilot in Quebec, in Mashteuiatsh, on that front. And we're trying one up north, as well. We have done the risk assessment, which the chapter saw as incomplete at the time. So we've done a thorough risk assessment of all of our recipients, and we're going through a second round of that. That will give us some reasonably objective basis to give some communities much more flexible and long-term agreements. And for others where there's higher risk, we would have shorter and less flexible agreements.

4:15 p.m.

NDP

The Chair David Christopherson

Okay, that's your time, Mr. Aspin. Thank you.

Colleagues, I'll be leaving the chair shortly for another obligation, and the first vice-chair, Mr. Kramp, will assume the chair, so I only have one question and I'd like to insert it now if I can.

Mr. Wernick, in your opening comments you mentioned that you've been in this position 65 months and have been in front of this committee four times. You'll probably recall that I was here for every one of those months and every one of those hearings. You may also recall that the one thing that launched me more than anything else regarding the Auditor General's reports was when there had been previous audits with the same findings and the situation had become worse. And then we would look at the responses from the previous time and see that they were very similar to the ones we would get at the current time. Mr. Kramp and I have been through this a number of cycles.

My question to you is this, and I say it with the greatest respect, that you're the accounting officer and you're on the dime, sir. I accept that the problems are huge and that they're not all yours alone. But I do have to ask the question, sir. What difference is there now between the promises you're making today on behalf of the government versus the promises that have been made in the past that weren't kept? In other words, why should we believe the department today, given the track record on so many of these issues?

4:20 p.m.

Deputy Minister, Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development

Michael Wernick

Thank you for the question, Mr. Chair. Yes, I do remember a lot of the previous questions.

I think what I can tell you is that where there are specific recommendations and specific issues, we do follow through, and there I can point you to dashboards and progress reports. We meticulously follow through every audit finding, every OAG finding, and we do make progress. There's been progress on water, there's been progress on school construction, and there's been enormous progress on settlement of specific claims. I can go through a long list of accomplishments of the men and women in my department over the last five years.

I think the key message of the Auditor General's report, as I hear it—and they can speak for themselves—is that we have reached the limits of a lot of further progress with the tools we have, and that we have to get better tools if Parliament wants better results.

4:20 p.m.

NDP

The Chair David Christopherson

Thank you. I appreciate the answer.

With that we will move on to Madame Blanchette-Lamothe. You have the floor, madame.

4:20 p.m.

NDP

Lysane Blanchette-Lamothe Pierrefonds—Dollard, QC

Thank you. I would also like to thank the witnesses for joining us today.

Mr. Wernick, you said that you strongly support the Auditor General’s assessment. You also said that the six pages of the foreword were a roadmap for Parliament. Just now, you told us about the tools you need. In your view, you are doing as much as you can with the tools available to you.

I would like to give you a chance to expand on that. Do you have something to add on what the government can do to provide the department with better tools?

4:20 p.m.

Deputy Minister, Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development

Michael Wernick

Thank you for your question. I feel we keep going back to the same issue of tools being combined. A combination like that would establish the legislative base, the legislative footing. For some of those activities, it means moving ahead with the tripartite agreements with the provinces and territories for those key areas. Every so often, resources have to be strategically distributed, which might help us with some areas. Combining everything would give us results that are more lasting in the medium and long term.