Good afternoon, Mr. Chairman and members of the committee.
I'd like to thank the committee for this invitation and would also like to acknowledge that we are gathered on traditional Algonquin territory. This is an important study, and I want to offer INAC's full support as it evolves.
As my colleagues have noted, suicide is often the tragic consequence of a complex array of factors.
That includes mental health issues such as depression, substance abuse, social and family factors, poor performance in school, and bullying or relationship issues.
One of the contributing factors to high suicide rates among first nations and Inuit, including youth, is inadequate basic supports. These can include a lack of income supports, education opportunities, adequate housing, or health and social services. These factors of instability have direct repercussions on the decline of mental health in indigenous communities, and each element is part of a continuum that is vital to providing a sense of hope, to wanting to go on in life, and to seeing oneself contributing in society.
I understand that, among other aspects, the committee will be studying these risk factors broadly, as well as protective factors that promote well-being and help reduce vulnerability.
This broad approach is helpful because so many players are involved in ensuring that those basic needs for indigenous communities are met.
For my part, I'll frame my remarks around those elements today, in order to best provide context on INAC's roles and programs. INAC, as you know, is a focal point at the federal level for indigenous issues. We are one of 34 federal departments responsible for meeting the Government of Canada's obligations and commitments to first nations, Inuit, and Métis.
INAC provides financial support to first nations communities to deliver services on reserve. This includes education, housing, and social support to indigenous peoples.
Our social programs aim to assist first nation individuals and communities to become more self-sufficient, and promote strategies to reduce the risk factors that negatively affect the health and well-being of communities.
Embedded in many of these programs is funding for prevention. It supports indigenous families and communities in taking steps to avoid situations of crisis, and in achieving improved outcomes whether they be in the care of children or generally in the support for greater participation in the labour market.
The department flows funds to first nation bands, organizations, and, in some cases, provincial service providers who provide on-reserve residents with individual and family social services that aim to offer culturally appropriate programming to meet the needs of those individuals and families.
INAC also provides funding for a suite of elementary and secondary programming through core funding and complementary targeted request- and proposal-based education programs that seek to focus on specific aspects of education support and success.
INAC's elementary and secondary education program funding is part of a broader strategy of investment in first nations children and youth. In addition to supporting elementary and secondary education, INAC also provides support to first nation and Inuit students to attend post-secondary institutions. Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada provide early childhood programs such as the aboriginal head start program, which helps promote school readiness among aboriginal children. Employment and Social Development Canada has labour market programs tailored specifically to aboriginal Canadians, including the first nations job fund and the aboriginal skills and employment training strategy. Departments are increasingly looking for ways to enhance co-operation.
In all cases, the programs are intended to be community-driven.
These types of programs go a long way toward promoting stronger, healthier communities, and toward reducing vulnerability and improving mental well-being.
The fundamental challenge that's before all of us is improving the foundations upon which indigenous communities can thrive. When those basic needs are not met, it is a tragic reality that crises and emergencies can occur. In those cases, as the committee knows, both our minister and departmental officials engage quickly with local leaders to discuss how best to give immediate and long-term help.
Certainly this outreach informs our ongoing efforts on how to proceed to meet the Government of Canada's commitment to working on a nation-to-nation basis and improving health and social outcomes in first nation communities, identifying program supports for required services, and strengthening the resilience among children and families on reserve.
In all cases, collaboration between all partners is key in working toward ensuring the continuum is working—that basic needs are in place to not only address crises when they occur, but more importantly prevent them from happening in the first place.
As part of historic budget 2016's $8.4 billion in investments, the department is on track to providing first nation recipients with the first round of investments. Much of this early budget funding is earmarked for addressing basic needs. As that moves forward, INAC remains committed to delivering on the government's promise of a new fiscal relationship with first nations to provide sufficient, predictable, and sustained funding for first nations communities.
I can also report that the Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada continues to work with cabinet colleagues on several early key initiatives, as outlined in their respective mandate letters.
This includes elementary and secondary education, the first nation and Inuit youth employment strategy, and post-secondary education.
Our department's work also contributes to meeting the Government of Canada's commitment in addressing the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal's order to reform the first nations child and family services program. We are also moving with all partners toward meaningful engagement with regard to informing options for program reform.
Recently departmental officials also joined the minister in announcing full support for the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. One of the principles of that declaration reads, “Indigenous individuals have an equal right to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.”
The department is committed to working in collaboration with partners to ensure those gaps between indigenous and non-indigenous people are closed, and to help first nations, Inuit, and Métis people improve wellness.
On one front, the department and minister spent the months from December to February engaging with survivors, families, and loved ones, indigenous organizations and governments, and provinces, territories, and experts on the design of an inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women and girls. We expect that this inquiry will also shed more light on many of the conditions that lead, tragically, to suicide in some communities.
I will also highlight that the minister is working with the Minister of Families, Children and Social Development to launch consultations with provinces and territories and indigenous peoples on a national early learning child care framework. This is a first step towards delivering affordable, suitable, high-quality, flexible, and fully inclusive child care.
A key component of combatting this ongoing tragedy is working in partnership with indigenous communities to promote and ensure that indigenous peoples have a secure personal cultural identity. This is a key issue for the minister and department. I am sure my colleagues at Health Canada will attest to the evidence that shows that a stronger sense of identity and self-sufficiency can in fact lead to reduced rates of suicide in indigenous communities.
As I and my colleagues have noted, to truly improve the situation for indigenous peoples, we must focus squarely on improving the socioeconomic conditions they face.
We will continue to reach out to provinces, territories, indigenous leadership, and others to find concrete solutions and look at long-term needs in mental health, child welfare, education, infrastructure, and employment in indigenous communities. I look forward to the advice, support, and dedication of this committee as we move the yardstick forward together on these issues.
I will be happy to answer any questions at the end.
Thank you very much.