Evidence of meeting #26 for Indigenous and Northern Affairs in the 41st Parliament, 2nd 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
Patrick Borbey  President, Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency

3:55 p.m.

Liberal

Judy Sgro Liberal York West, ON

Mr. Valcourt, thank you very much for being here today.

I want to ask you about first nations water, an issue which I believe you care about, but I know that all Canadians have great concerns about the whole infrastructure in and around water.

Your 2011 national engineering assessment found the need for an immediate investment—and this was back in 2011—of $1.2 billion to meet existing protocols at that time just for operating, capital costs of $4.7 billion over 10 years, plus a projected operating and maintenance budget of $419 million annually over a 10-year period of time. Again, this was your own report in 2011.

Instead of the additional resources required, what first nations actually got was new water legislation imposed on them that downloads liabilities and responsibilities with very few new resources.

Does the department have a plan and a timetable for making the required investments that were outlined in your 2011 water engineering assessment?

4 p.m.

Conservative

Bernard Valcourt Conservative Madawaska—Restigouche, NB

Well, as will be obvious to any objective observer, since 2006 close to $3 billion has been invested into this undertaking.

As we say,

Paris wasn't built in a day.

We are on a solid progressing plan where you see every year a substantial investment at a time when you know that the government is committed to balancing its budget. Notwithstanding the fact that we will have managed in this mandate to completely eliminate the deficit by 2014-15, we will still have increased and keep increasing our investments into water and waste water on reserves to ensure that the health and safety of those first nations' residents is protected.

I'm sure that this is not a problem that was born the day we were elected. Obviously, if there was that level of investment required, it must have been because before we came to government some other government also failed to invest in water and waste water.

4 p.m.

Liberal

Judy Sgro Liberal York West, ON

In a 2011 plan of yours, they call for a 10-year plan. Did you develop a 10-year plan? Can you table a copy of that plan that you were asked to create at that particular time? Can you table it for the committee's sake?

4 p.m.

Conservative

Bernard Valcourt Conservative Madawaska—Restigouche, NB

To my knowledge there is no such 10-year plan, but I will ask my deputy to help me here.

4 p.m.

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

No. We get our money in budgets usually two years at a time or three years at a time. We try to have criteria for setting priorities. We have ranked lists. We assess them nationally and we do what we can with the money we get in each budget. We post the progress at least every year, sometimes more frequently.

I would say that the estimate, which is provided by consultants, is a kind of maximum worst-case costing if we use very conventional technologies available at the time, piped water systems and so on. Of course, what we're trying to do at every opportunity is get more results out of the available dollars.

The technology in water and waste water is evolving very quickly, and we're trying to encourage first nations to use it.

4 p.m.

Liberal

Judy Sgro Liberal York West, ON

But you agree that, if you say you're going to develop a 10-year plan, it's always subject to funding on each one of those budget years. We understand that, but there still needs to be a plan with a commitment that you intend to meet it.

Certainly balancing the budget on the back of our first nations community, when they clearly have significant problems, whether we're talking about their education, their water, or their housing conditions, isn't an adequate answer.

May 29th, 2014 / 4 p.m.

Deputy Minister, Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development

Michael Wernick

It would be nice to have 10-year funding commitments. I've never had 10-year funding commitments. We would have had a long-term statutory funding commitment to K-to-12 education in Bill C-33.

4 p.m.

Liberal

Judy Sgro Liberal York West, ON

Who's to blame for that?

Can you give the committee a detailed breakdown of that $3 billion you referred to earlier?

4 p.m.

Conservative

Bernard Valcourt Conservative Madawaska—Restigouche, NB

Absolutely. We can provide you with the detailed breakdown of all the spending and the investments that have been made on water and waste water since 2006. We will be pleased to provide you with a copy of that.

4 p.m.

Liberal

Judy Sgro Liberal York West, ON

Thank you.

What progress has the department actually made in developing federal water and waste-water regulations, and how has the department engaged first nations communities in the development of these regulations?

4 p.m.

Conservative

Bernard Valcourt Conservative Madawaska—Restigouche, NB

That work is ongoing at the regional level. Of course, as we have stated, regulations will not be imposed until the infrastructure is up to par. I know that many first nations are working at the regional level with the regions and some with the cooperation of certain provinces to see how to bring about those regulations. You cannot impose a standard on a system of waste water or a water system that is not upgraded and up to par. That work is ongoing, but I have no details before me as to exactly what point it is at, and I don't know whether we have that information.

4:05 p.m.

Deputy Minister, Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development

Michael Wernick

Very briefly, water regulations vary from province to province, as you would know. In B.C., they're different from those in Ontario. Some provinces chlorinate, while others don't, and so on. This could be done very quickly if we just went to the Internet and cut and pasted provincial regulations and applied them. That is not what first nations want. They want to be involved in the drafting. We will try to move it along as briskly as we can. As long as the first nations lawyers and consultants and others will cooperate, I think we can get it done very quickly.

4:05 p.m.

Liberal

Judy Sgro Liberal York West, ON

What specific education and labour market activities are going to be funded through these main estimates that we have before us today?

4:05 p.m.

Conservative

Bernard Valcourt Conservative Madawaska—Restigouche, NB

In terms of education, as is apparent in the estimates, we are going to continue investing in both elementary and secondary education, as well as post-secondary education. The investment is going up by the 2% escalator that is in place.

On the issue of what else, we are going to continue investing in the income assistance reform, which is targeting funds to skills development for youth on reserve, along with the native job fund. We now have 70 first nations that are under that program, which we want to continue to expand.

These are generally the investments that will take place under these estimates. Specifically in terms of the elementary and secondary programs currently offered, the funds will continue to pay for instructional services. They will continue to pay the tuition for on-reserve students attending provincial schools. The student support services will continue, as will curriculum and language development, high-cost special education, and other education activities that were also supported in the previous fiscal year. These will all continue with a bit of an increase in spending.

4:05 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Chris Warkentin

Thank you very much.

We'll turn to Mr. Dreeshen now for the next questions.

4:05 p.m.

Conservative

Earl Dreeshen Conservative Red Deer, AB

You mentioned in your address, and going back to the water discussion, $136 million in supplementary estimates (A) this year for water and waste-water infrastructure on reserve. Of course, you mentioned coming in with Bill S-8, the Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act. I understand this legislation is helping protect our government's significant investments in first nations water and waste-water systems. I'm wondering if you could elaborate, for some of us who are relatively new on this committee, on some of the benefits that have come about by the adoption of this piece of legislation.

4:05 p.m.

Conservative

Bernard Valcourt Conservative Madawaska—Restigouche, NB

Our government's investment in infrastructure is vital to the quality of life in first nation communities, and it is therefore crucial that these projects and their continued utility to the communities they serve be protected. I'm proud that our government is flowing the first allocation of funds in the supplementary estimates (A) to implement the water and waste-water infrastructure action plan commitment that were contained in our economic action plan 2013.

The Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act provides the mandate, as alluded to by my deputy earlier, to enact regulations that are legally enforceable. This is something that has never existed under any previous government for first nations in the country. This is about the safety, the health of the residents of those first nation communities.

The act also provides communities with the added incentive to maintain the infrastructure, while also clarifying the roles and responsibilities of those involved in the operation and maintenance of water and waste-water plants in the first nation communities. The analysis reveals that one of the main reasons, and the largest factor which affects the quality of water and the disposal of waste water on reserve, is the lack of qualified operators. We have invested, and are continuing to invest in the rider program in order to train those people and get the proper people in place. It is thus protecting the significant efforts and investment made by first nations and our government in water and waste-water facilities, consequently, as I said, improving the protection of the health and safety of first nation members.

4:10 p.m.

Conservative

Earl Dreeshen Conservative Red Deer, AB

Thank you.

I suppose one of the other points you have come up with, the improved on-reserve income assistance program, focuses on assisting clients in that 18- to 24-year-old age group. Of course, they want to develop the necessary skills so they can find a way to get into the job market. I see there's $41 million allocated in the mains to increase first nation and Inuit youth participation in education and labour market opportunities.

As a teacher, I can truly say that it's so important to first nations youth, as they are vital to Canada's future growth and our economic prosperity, to be able to get them involved and to move forward. I'm just wondering if you could give the committee an update on the progress that has been made in that regard.

4:10 p.m.

Conservative

Bernard Valcourt Conservative Madawaska—Restigouche, NB

There has been good progress to date with respect to implementing the income assistance reform initiative. Economic action plan 2013, as you all know and I referred to earlier, promised $241 million over five years to increase aboriginal youth participation in education and in the labour market. The $41 million you referred to in the main estimates is the first allocation under this new initiative.

Approval of 22 enhanced service delivery projects was announced in January 2014, and these are now being implemented as we speak. As I said earlier, these involve 70 first nations and close to 3,300 clients aged between 18 and 24. Supporting these 22 projects are 11 first nation job fund projects, whereby 11 aboriginal skills and employment training strategy development agreement holders are matched and responsible for providing those skills and training supports to income assistance clients who are referred to them.

We have seven additional enhanced delivery service proposals paired with four job fund proposals that are now being considered for funding approval, and implementation is expected to begin in June or early July. This will reach an additional 15 first nations and close to 1,100 young clients.

It's promising, but as I indicated when I announced this, and the first nations all know this, we are being closely monitored by Treasury Board, because this is a new initiative, which will build on previous pilot projects. We have to prove that it is working. Up to now, I'm pretty satisfied with the good work that those first nations are putting into their program.

4:15 p.m.

Conservative

Earl Dreeshen Conservative Red Deer, AB

Another initiative, of course, is the gas tax fund and what we've been able to do with it in economic action plan 2014. It made permanent $139 million of funding over five years to first nations under that particular fund, beginning this year. This translates to a $26.7 million increase in the mains for community infrastructure on reserve.

I'm wondering what role the department is going to play in developing the proposals that are required for this new fund, and also, whether you could provide some details on the funding for first nations from the gas tax fund, which our government has made permanent.

4:15 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Chris Warkentin

I don't know that it would be possible to give a short answer, but we're running out of time.

4:15 p.m.

Conservative

Bernard Valcourt Conservative Madawaska—Restigouche, NB

I'm going to try to be brief by saying that my department is working closely with Infrastructure Canada to increase first nation awareness of Infrastructure Canada's $14 billion new building Canada fund, for which they are now eligible. Also, beginning in 2014-15, $139 million in funding over five years from the gas tax will be allocated to first nation communities through our own first nations infrastructure fund. That again will allow us to make progress on many reserves across the country.

4:15 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Chris Warkentin

Thank you, Minister.

We'll turn to Mr. Genest-Jourdain for the next question.

4:15 p.m.

NDP

Jonathan Genest-Jourdain NDP Manicouagan, QC

Minister, concerning Nutrition North Canada, out of the $53 million earmarked in the budget to support access to healthy food in isolated northern communities, what amount will be set aside for access to traditional food?

4:15 p.m.

Conservative

Bernard Valcourt Conservative Madawaska—Restigouche, NB

On what issue exactly do you want me to provide details?