Evidence of meeting #54 for Indigenous and Northern Affairs 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

11:45 a.m.

NDP

Jean Crowder NDP Nanaimo—Cowichan, BC

[Inaudible--Editor]

11:45 a.m.

Conservative

Jim Prentice Conservative 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 Conservative Colin Mayes

Thank you, Mr. Minister.

To the government side, Mr. Bruinooge, please.

11:50 a.m.

Conservative

Rod Bruinooge Conservative 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 Conservative 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.

11:55 a.m.

Conservative

Rod Bruinooge Conservative Winnipeg South, MB

Could you perhaps explain a little further how the opt-out process works? I know it's integral to the agreement finally being ratified. Could you highlight some of those details for us to get a better understanding as to the timing of when it's going to finally be ratified?

Also, could you give me some further understanding as to when the healing foundation and truth and reconciliation process will formally begin?

11:55 a.m.

Conservative

Jim Prentice Conservative Calgary Centre-North, AB

Let me deal first with the common experience payments and the opt-out clause.

Really what the residential school agreement does is close the most complicated class action lawsuits in Canadian history, class action lawsuits that had in excess, as I recall, of 30,000 individual plaintiffs who had sued the Government of Canada in a variety of forms. So this is not simply an agreement that gives effect to social objectives, but it's actually an agreement that achieves the resolution of the most complicated and difficult lawsuits that the country has experienced.

The effect of the agreement will be that all of the claims of both the people who attended residential schools and their descendants will be extinguished as part of the court-approved settlement. As a result, it's necessary to ensure that those people who are entitled to benefit under the agreement have a chance to opt out, have a chance to make a conscious choice that they don't want to be part of this settlement, and that they don't want to extinguish their claim or the claim of their children. They therefore have the legal ability under the court process to make a decision to walk away from the settlement and opt out. If enough people opt out, then the agreement collapses, or rephrased, the agreement becomes voidable at the option of the Government of Canada. That threshold is 5,000 individuals.

We're making progress at this point. There's actually a very small number of individuals who have opted out at this point, which I think speaks well of the agreement. We don't anticipate that we will be near that opt-out threshold, but that call really can't be made until September of this year. So once we're through the opt-out period, then the agreement can be properly applied to everyone who is a recipient, a beneficiary, under the agreement. We expect to make progress there.

The implementation will be in September of this year. That's when we move into the implementation phase. Peter Harrison is a very experienced individual with the Government of Canada, with a lifetime of experience. He heads up the department for Indian residential school settlement and is responsible for the full administration of this and is doing an excellent job at it.

Noon

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Colin Mayes

Thank you.

Madam Karetak-Lindell, we're beginning the five-minute round now.

Thank you.

Noon

Liberal

Nancy Karetak-Lindell Liberal Nunavut, NU

Thank you.

Thank you, Mr. Minister, for being here, and also to everyone who's here to listen today.

I have a lot to cover in our second round with only five minutes. I'm just going to take your comment about the residential schools having gone so well as actually a compliment to the previous government, which I think pretty well settled it, and all you need to do is carry it through.

Because everyone else has asked questions on other areas, I'm going to focus more on economic development. As I look through some of the planned spending, I see a lot of decreases in the areas that have something to do with economic development: the clarity of title to lands and resources, economic development for aboriginal people, and economic development, northern land and resources, even community infrastructure. Those I see as all key parts of fostering good economic development in our communities, and I see a very big drop. I know you've transferred Aboriginal Business Canada from Industry Canada, which I don't necessarily agree with either, because the expertise was in Industry Canada, and I thought we were moving to a phase where economic development was economic development, not that just because it's aboriginal people it has to be under Indian Affairs.

So could you explain why there is such a drop in that? Aboriginal Business Canada is only $49.1 million on the next page; it doesn't account for all the different reductions in that.

Could you also talk little bit about your relationship with organizations that represent aboriginal people in Canada? We're hearing a lot through our Bill C-44 witnesses that they're not getting an opportunity to really work with you on priority issues. I see a drop in cooperative relationships too, that the funding has gone down in that, so I don't know if that explains part of it. I have a group called the Land Claim Agreement Coalition who have come together--all the different land claims organizations have come together, and it's a rare thing for them to be able to come together and work together--and they haven't been able to get cooperation on the government side to really implement land claims organizations.

I know I don't have that much time. I'll leave the rest with you.

12:05 p.m.

Conservative

Jim Prentice Conservative Calgary Centre-North, AB

Well, thank you, colleague. You've raised a number of issues.

I've given a lengthy speech about the Indian residential school settlement, and I won't recap all of that. I would observe that victory has many fathers and failure is an orphan. Certainly all of the political parties represented at this table had something to say about the residential school matter. I would simply close by noting that it was this government and me, working together with Mr. Fontaine, who negotiated the issues that needed to be resolved to put the agreement in place. It bears our signature, and all of that happened in the opening three months of this government.

Moving forward, in terms of economic development, I don't think you and I agree on this point. The reason the economic development authorities were consolidated into INAC related to almost the universal comments that I received from first nation leaders. Almost without exception, first nation leaders I talked to in the early part of my tenure as minister said they were deeply unhappy with how the aboriginal economic development portfolio was not receiving the attention that it needed to receive and that it had received when it formed part of INAC.

I think we all know that economic development is the key to the future for first nations in particular, and Inuit people as well. The sense was that if those authorities formed part of the authorities of the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs, we would have more direct levers to have a say and to assist in economic development. In many cases, the economic development initiatives are also on a parallel track with land claim settlements and payments, so it made sense to consolidate them. The consolidation, I would emphasize, was not my idea; it originated with first nations leadership, who asked me to do it.

In terms of what we need to do on a go-forward basis, the National Aboriginal Economic Development Board has been renewed and renovated. In the days ahead I will announce the new appointments to the board. There were many vacancies on the board when we became the government. I've had a singular test, which is that people who sit on this board need to be first nation and Inuit leaders who command respect, who are deeply involved in economic development.

Most of the people who've agreed to come on this board control hundreds of millions of dollars of assets—if not billions of dollars of assets—themselves, through their first nations or Inuit people, I would emphasize. So they are a remarkable group of Canadians. People will really take notice of who they are. They will be there to assist us in moving forward with budgetary issues and economic development issues—

12:05 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Colin Mayes

We've actually run out of time, so I'm going to move on to Mr. Albrecht, please.

12:05 p.m.

Conservative

Harold Albrecht Conservative Kitchener—Conestoga, ON

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Thank you, Mr. Minister, for being here today.

I noted throughout your comments, and obviously prior to these comments today, a theme of focusing on economic development. Certainly when I've spoken to constituents in my riding and also to first nations people in the last year, that has been one of their primary comments, that this is where we'll get the largest value for any new initiatives.

You commented about the unification of Aboriginal Business Canada and the National Aboriginal Economic Development Board, and you go on to talk about, on page 9, the workplace partnerships between government, businesses, and trade unions to increase the level of employment of the aboriginal workforce. I'm just wondering, what kind of uptake or adoption are you getting from this idea? I think that if we can include private partnerships in this, it will certainly leverage, as you point out, the amount of government investment and will also create ownership. Is there an early adoption of this principle as you move across Canada? You've given us some examples here, but maybe some others are waiting in the wings that you could share with us, if that's not divulging private information.

12:05 p.m.

Conservative

Jim Prentice Conservative Calgary Centre-North, AB

No. Just to complete my last answer, which really transitions into this one, I can tell you that we also have a new full-time economic development ADM for the first time in the department. For the first time, we also have other new and enhanced staffing to really get on with economic development with first nations.

You were speaking about partnerships; there is an enormous appetite for them within the private sector. The examples I've illustrated are some of the first and earliest ones we've engaged in. These programs really do work. They are reasonably modest in terms of the financial investment on the part of the Government of Canada, but they allow significant progress in terms of the employment of first nations citizens through sitting down and working in partnership with a provincial government or a local municipality--as in the case of Edmonton, for example--or the private sector in clearing away the impediments to getting first nations citizens into job opportunities. They are very proactive. The whole AWPI process, as it's called, is something that bears real fruit. There are tangible results. There are immediate results. We're seeing that in all of the places where agreements are signed.

It also focuses individual Canadians in the private sector on their responsibility and their role to go out and recruit first nations citizens. I was struck by one of the first signing ceremonies I took part in. It was with the nursing association of Nova Scotia. I asked them how many nurses in their profession were first nations people. The number was pretty close to nil. It was quite surprising. That is an organization that has taken it upon itself to go out and really recruit young aboriginal men and women to bring them into that profession. We see the same thing up north in the area of the oil sands in Alberta, in northern Saskatchewan, and certainly in the Northwest Territories.

This is really where the future lies. It is an excellent program.

12:10 p.m.

Conservative

Harold Albrecht Conservative Kitchener—Conestoga, ON

I agree that it is where the future lies, and if the broader Canadian public were made aware of it, they would be totally supportive of it.

Do I have any time left, Mr. Chair?

12:10 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Colin Mayes

You have one minute.

12:10 p.m.

Conservative

Harold Albrecht Conservative Kitchener—Conestoga, ON

Could we have a quick note about the $300 million, and the leverage through making this available through CMHC? If you could just flesh that out in the next 45 seconds, it would be helpful.

12:10 p.m.

Conservative

Jim Prentice Conservative Calgary Centre-North, AB

In terms of structural changes, which previous governments have not been prepared to do and our government is, this is extremely important. It has gone from being an idea ten years ago to being the way of the future. I'm not naive enough to think it will satisfy all the housing needs in all the first nations across the country, but it will meet part of the demand that exists.

The government has put forward $300 million; the banks will lever off that with an additional $1.5 billion or thereabouts. All of those dollars are available to first nations that want to construct private on-reserve housing. It is already starting. We are already starting to see the interest in this; applications are coming in. It will be rolled out and implemented in the spring of 2008, but it already works.

I would emphasize that this idea came from first nations. It comes from places like Lac La Ronge in Saskatchewan, Chief Darcy Bear's community in Saskatchewan, and other places where first nation private housing has been tried and is working.

In closing, Mr. Chairman, on this point I will simply say that I have felt for some time that nothing is more important than the right of a first nations citizen, if they choose to own their own house and to build up their own equity, to draw on that equity for the education of their children or for their retirement, in the same way as all Canadians do.

12:10 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Colin Mayes

Thank you, Mr. Minister.

Mr. Lévesque is next.

12:10 p.m.

Bloc

Yvon Lévesque Bloc Abitibi—Baie-James—Nunavik—Eeyou, QC

Minister, I would like to begin by acknowledging your support with regard to the Quebec Pavillon des Premières Nations. Unfortunately, you have not been quite as impressive in other areas. I do not know whether you recall the commitment made in 1977 by the department and the then prime minister to consult first nations before introducing any changes. On page 1 of your report, you refer to Bill C-44 and, on page 7, you mention the repeal of section 67.

This is what I want to discuss first. Everybody agrees that first nations ought to be subject to the same laws that govern other Canadians. However, when we impose obligations upon first nations, we must also give them the means to meet these obligations. For some time now, people have been voicing their concerns about primary education. The study on post-secondary education revealed a problem: young people are not finishing primary school because the primary school system is inadequate. There is not enough money to build schools and there is a shortage of teachers.

Even today, first nations people have to fight for schools and struggle to find qualified teachers. How can we possibly ask first nations leaders to take on the same responsibilities as their non-first nations counterparts?

Let us now turn our attention to Bill C-51, which deals with the Nunavik land claims. You tabled this bill in the House quite some time ago. The committee unanimously supported fast-tracking the bill, we were in favour of fast-tracking the bill because it represented a commitment by your government to the Inuit. It was a laudable commitment. Everybody supported it.

Given that this bill falls under the purview of your department, could you please explain why it has not even got to second reading in the House?

12:15 p.m.

Conservative

Jim Prentice Conservative Calgary Centre-North, AB

Mr. Chairman, I would like to thank my colleague for his question. With your indulgence, I shall answer in English.

The Inuit-Makivik legislation, Bill C-51, is at the House. The issue is whether there's going to be a clause-by-clause review by this committee, and if so, when it is going to happen—or whether it is, frankly, necessary.

There is a second bill, which relates to the province of Quebec, that has been working its way through the Senate: Bill S-6, which relates to the bijuralization, if you will. It's an extremely important bill. It's inexplicable why it has not happened to this point, but all of the modern self-government legislation that has been put in place over the last number of years was not put in place for Quebec first nations at the same time. We wish to rectify that.

I anticipate that both of those bills will be before the House in the way that you anticipate, hopefully very quickly, so that we can deal with them and move forward. That's something that you and I and Monsieur Lemay and others will continue to work together on. I wish to see those two bills enacted as law as quickly as possible. I think we can achieve that.

With respect to Bill C-44, I must say this is a piece of legislation that gives to first nations citizens the protection of Canada's Human Rights Act. I don't think the parliamentary committee should study it endlessly. The operative clause of the bill is only nine words long. It says: “Section 67 of the Canadian Human Rights Act is repealed.”That would lift a barrier that prevents a first nation woman, for example, who's not satisfied with the quality of education her child is receiving from filing a complaint, a grievance, either against the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, whoever it happens to be, or against her own council, if she feels that's where the issue isn't being dealt with.

This is one of the elements of modern governance that clearly has to be available to first nations citizens as we move forward to self-government. I think it's wrong that first nations citizens in Canada do not have the right to file human rights grievances the way other Canadians do. I think it will advantage women and children significantly, and I ask for the committee's cooperation.

The committee has been studying this subject now for 16 weeks, and I think it's time the committee moved this bill back to the House of Commons. If at that time the opposition parties do not support the concept of Canada's first nation citizens having human rights protection, you'll be afforded an opportunity to stand up and cast a vote. But let's get this issue back to the House of Commons and move forward. This committee has much other important work to do.

12:20 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Colin Mayes

Thank you, Mr. Minister.

Mr. Storseth, please.

12:20 p.m.

Conservative

Brian Storseth Conservative 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 Conservative 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 Conservative Colin Mayes

Thank you.

Madam Crowder, please.

12:25 p.m.

NDP

Jean Crowder NDP 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?