Evidence of meeting #15 for Indigenous and Northern Affairs in the 43rd Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was students.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Éric Cardinal  As an Individual
Clerk of the Committee  Ms. Evelyn Lukyniuk
Robert Watt  President, Kativik Ilisarniliriniq
Ellen Gabriel  As an Individual
Elijah Williams  Director, Indigenous Engagement, Centre for Indigenous Learning and Support, Sheridan College

5:10 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Bob Bratina

I have the honour of calling this meeting to order. Welcome to meeting number 15 of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Indigenous and Northern Affairs.

I would like to start by acknowledging that I am joining you today from the traditional territory of the Haudenosaunee, Anishinabe and Chonnonton nations.

Pursuant to the order of reference of April 20, 2020, the committee is meeting for the purpose of receiving evidence concerning matters related to the government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Today's meeting is taking place by video conference. The proceedings will be made available via the House of Commons website. During this meeting the webcast will always show the person speaking rather than the entire committee.

In order to facilitate the work of our interpreters and ensure an orderly meeting, I'd like to outline a few rules to follow.

Interpretation in this video conference will work very much as it does in a regular committee meeting. You have the choice, at the bottom of your screen, of either floor, English or French. In order to resolve the sound issues raised in recent virtual committee meetings and to ensure clear audio transmission, we ask that when you are speaking, you set your interpretation language as follows. If speaking in English, please ensure that you are on the English channel. If speaking in French, please ensure that you are on the French channel. As you are speaking, if you plan to alternate from one language to the other, you will also need to switch the interpretation channel so that it aligns with the language you are speaking. You may want to allow for a short pause when switching languages.

Before speaking, please wait until I recognize you by name. When you are ready to speak, you can either click on the microphone icon to activate your mike, or you can hold down the space bar while you are speaking, and when you release the bar the mike will mute itself, just like a walkie-talkie. I will remind everyone that all comments by members and witnesses should be addressed through the chair.

Should you need to request the floor outside of your designated time for questions, you should activate your mike and state that you have a point of order. If you wish to intervene on a point of order that has been raised by another member, you should use the “raise hand” function. This will signal to the chair your interest in speaking. In order to do so, you should click on “participants” at the bottom of the screen. When the list pops up, you will see next to your name that you can click “raise hand”.

When speaking, please speak slowly and clearly. When you're not speaking, your mike should be muted.

The use of headphones is strongly encouraged. If you have earbuds with a microphone, please hold the microphone near your mouth when you're speaking to boost the sound quality for our interpreters.

Should any technical challenges arise, for example in relation to interpretation or if you accidentally are disconnected, please advise the chair or the clerk immediately, and the technical team will work to resolve the issue. Please note that we may need to suspend during these times as we need to ensure that all members are able to participate fully.

Before we get started, can everyone click on their screen in the top right-hand corner and ensure they are on gallery view? With this view, you should be able to see all the participants in a grid view so that all video participants can see each other.

During this meeting we'll follow the same rules that usually apply to opening statements and the rounds for questioning of witnesses during our regular meetings. Each witness will have up to five minutes for an opening statement, followed by the usual rounds of questions from members.

Now let me introduce our witnesses. Representing their views as individuals we have Éric Cardinal and Ellen Gabriel; from the Kativik Ilisarniliriniq, we have Robert Watt, president; and from Sheridan College, we have Elijah Williams, director of indigenous engagement for the Centre for Indigenous Learning and Support.

Mr. Cardinal, you have five minutes for your opening remarks. Please go ahead.

5:10 p.m.

Éric Cardinal As an Individual

Good afternoon and thank you for inviting me to appear before the committee, which is doing very important work.

When I look at how the handling of the COVID-19 crisis is being experienced in Indigenous communities, one thing stands out for me: the marked difference between the measures adopted or desired by Indigenous leaders and those adopted by non-Indigenous communities.

The divide is especially prominent in the regions, where we have seen Indigenous communities adopt much more stringent measures more quickly than their non-Indigenous neighbours. For example, most First Nations in Quebec locked down their communities rapidly to prevent the virus from getting in. We have also seen First Nations keep certain services and activities closed, while the province has reopened them.

Why is there such a difference? I submit two possible answers. The first is related to health reasons. As you know, Indigenous peoples are at a higher risk than others of contracting COVID-19, particularly because of their specific health, social and economic circumstances. Obesity, diabetes and a history of disease...

June 9th, 2020 / 5:10 p.m.

Liberal

Lenore Zann Liberal Cumberland—Colchester, NS

I'm so sorry to interrupt.

The sound of the interpretation seems to be cutting in and out. It's hard to follow. The sound of the interpreter's voice is cutting in and out.

Sorry to bother everybody.

5:15 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Bob Bratina

No problem.

Madam Clerk, are we aware of any other issues? Is this a singular problem with Ms. Zann, or are there other issues?

5:15 p.m.

The Clerk of the Committee Ms. Evelyn Lukyniuk

I'll check that out right away.

5:15 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Bob Bratina

We'll suspend just briefly.

5:15 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Bob Bratina

Mr. Cardinal, you have four more minutes, so please continue.

5:15 p.m.

As an Individual

Éric Cardinal

As I was saying, there is a major difference between what Indigenous communities are doing and what non-Indigenous communities are doing. There is the issue of health, of course. In addition, the number of people per dwelling in Indigenous communities is much higher than in non-Indigenous communities, which makes it difficult to observe physical distancing measures.

We must also remember that First Nations were particularly scarred by past epidemics, which resulted in cultural and psychological trauma that still exists to this day.

The main point in my presentation today is the separate management of Indigenous communities, which is founded on the right to self-government. The recognition of this concept is being questioned during this pandemic. I have observed that the crisis has made it very clear how difficult it is for governments to recognize the status of entities, otherwise known as band councils, as governments. To illustrate this, I will cite three examples of First Nations in Quebec.

The first example involves the situation that has garnered the most media attention in recent weeks, namely the reopening of Oka Park. The park is the Quebec government's responsibility, but it is located on the unceded territory of the Mohawk Nation. It was declared open without consulting the Mohawk Council of Kanesatake authorities.

The Mohawks decided to keep the park closed by setting up an impromptu road block. It was on the fête des Patriotes holiday, around mid-May. A conflict ensued between the Mohawk Council and the provincial government, forcing the federal government to step in.

This example clearly shows that government authorities do not have the reflex to consult First Nations leaders when they make decisions that affect so-called unceded territories, which, by the way, also includes a great deal of Quebec land. We see no consultation even when the land is in the middle of a territorial negotiation process, as is the case for the Mohawks of Kanesatake, in the Oka region.

The other two examples received less media attention, despite the efforts of Indigenous authorities to attract it. They illustrate the extent to which government services are still caught in the colonial stranglehold of the Indian Act.

Like many other First Nations, Long Point in Abitibi locked down its community and attempted to impose strict travel restrictions on its members. Because Long Point has no police force, it called upon the provincial police force, the Sûreté du Québec. Though it is regularly patrolled by police officers, they say they do not have the authority to enforce the First Nations measures. Why? Because the community in the village of Winneway is not officially a reserve under the Indian Act.

Even though it has been recognized since at least 1996, when the Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples was released, that self-government is an inherent Indigenous right protected under section 35 of the Constitution Act of 1982, and even though the federal government recognizes councils as First Nations governments in theory, we are still far from that recognition in practice.

The third example concerns a nation located in the Gaspé Peninsula.

5:20 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Bob Bratina

I'm sorry, Mr. Cardinal. We're well past the time. Please hold on to those points. I'm sure they'll come up again so that you can complete them later on in our panel.

5:20 p.m.

As an Individual

5:20 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Bob Bratina

Right now—

5:20 p.m.

As an Individual

Éric Cardinal

I am going to skip a part.

My third example concerns La Nation Micmac de Gespeg, which is not a reserve either. Because of that, the community does not receive emergency government support, which is available to all other First Nations.

Before the COVID-19 crisis and the railway crisis—let us call it that— that immediately preceded it, the Quebec and Canadian governments were engaged in a reconciliation process. We cannot let these crises cause a backslide in Canada-First Nations relations.

In short, the reopening—

5:20 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Bob Bratina

Sir, we understand.

That's fine. I don't want to lose any of the testimony you wish to present, but to keep the meeting organized, we go by our time limits on speakers and questions. If we don't hear your further testimony that you wish to give now, I'm sure it can be sent to us by letter so that we don't miss anything.

Now I'd like to call on Mr. Robert Watt, the president of the Kativik Ilisarniliriniq. You have five minutes. Go ahead, please.

5:20 p.m.

Robert Watt President, Kativik Ilisarniliriniq

[Witness spoke in Inuktitut]

[English]

My name is Robert Watt. I am the president of Kativik Ilisarniliriniq, the school board of Nunavik.

First, I would like to thank you for inviting me. I'm glad to have the opportunity to inform you about how the Nunavik education sector has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

As you are aware, the school year ended March 23 in Nunavik. Now we are planning to reopen school in August. This work is aligned with the health and safety measures announced for Nunavik as our communities reopen slowly.

These unprecedented times have highlighted key needs in education, and I would like to focus on six recommendations that are essential for education in Nunavik. I have filed a briefing document with the committee, where you will find comprehensive backgrounds on each of these recommendations. I encourage you to read it.

Regarding telecommunication infrastructure, without access to broadband/high-speed Internet, there is no real prospect for distance education and online education platforms to develop as a serious service offering in the youth, adult and post-secondary sectors in Nunavik.

With regard to access to technology, in Nunavik the cost of living is particularly high and the 2018 median income of Inuit families was $25,627, compared with $61,400 for the rest of Canada. Families and students must be provided the financial means to acquire technologies. This is essential to ensure the educational success of Inuit students as learning is likely to increasingly shift towards online platforms and tools.

With regard to testing, as we proceed with the reopening of our schools and adult education centres, and to foster trust in our transportation networks and institutions, it will be important for the Nunavik organizations and air carriers servicing our communities to have access to COVID-19 testing, with reduced delays for obtaining results. With the backdrop of a high tuberculosis rate and a recent history of devastating epidemics, this is key to addressing the fear that many Nunavimmiut feel about the prospect of reopening our communities.

With regard to water and sewer services, access to these services remains an ongoing issue in Nunavik. Lack of water or sewage service is a recurring cause of school closure in most of our communities. In the context of COVID-19, where the main health measure is to wash hands frequently, we need to see infrastructure investments that will support and ensure sustainable maintenance of our water and sewer services beyond this pandemic.

With a continuously growing student population and a renewed interest in post-secondary studies at a distance, we need to see infrastructure investments that will support the Nunavik education system beyond the immediate measures announced in the context of this pandemic. These include the construction, renovation and expansion of school and adult education centres, housing for employees, student residences in the adult sector; and study space for post-secondary students.

Last but not least is on-the-land education and Inuktitut language protection. The educational resources, digital content, online platforms and curriculum developed by the school board are available in Inukititut, English and French. We need to recognize that guaranteeing consistent access to content in Inuktitut that has been developed from an Inuit perspective requires additional time, specific expertise, and can only happen with access to adequate funding.

On-the-land education programs and activities offer unique educational opportunities that connect youth to their language, identity and communities. They play a critical role in strengthening the Inuktitut language, and require adequate funding.

At the school board, on-the-land education and educational excursions have benefited from the support of new paths for education, a program formerly administered under Indigenous and Northern Affairs. Discussions on the transfer of funding available through this program to the Province of Quebec are recurrently occurring. This means that the federal funding the school board currently relies on for on-the-land education would be distributed through the Quebec ministry of education. We would like to stress the utmost importance of ensuring a seamless transition of this program, as a gap in access to funding could jeopardize some of the culturally relevant activities offered by our schools.

Thank you very much.

5:25 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Bob Bratina

Thank you, sir. Unfortunately, some of your presentation was not captured because of the Internet connection.

We have the six points you made. Hopefully along the way we'll be able to solve the Internet connections.

Hopefully, Ms. Gabriel, if you're all ready to go, we'll see how your five minutes of testimony works out technically. Please go ahead.

Mr. Powlowski, do you have your hand up?

5:25 p.m.

Liberal

Marcus Powlowski Liberal Thunder Bay—Rainy River, ON

Yes, I have a point of order. So far in this committee, we are yet to see this. It's fantastic. I think we're getting translation from Inuktitut into English.

Is that not remarkable? Is this always available?

5:25 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Bob Bratina

Madam Clerk.

5:25 p.m.

The Clerk

The witness was speaking English, but we do offer third language interpretation with advance notice.

5:25 p.m.

Liberal

Marcus Powlowski Liberal Thunder Bay—Rainy River, ON

They were totally not lined up, so I figured we were getting a translation because the speaking voice was going at a totally different speed. Sorry about that.

5:25 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Bob Bratina

Okay. That was because of the connection, which is slow.

Ms. Gabriel, can you go ahead now for five minutes?

5:25 p.m.

Ellen Gabriel As an Individual

Wa’tkwanonwerà:ton to all of the parliamentary committee members.

Like many people around the world, when the pandemic began we felt like we were walking through a dystopian world in a blindfold. There was no leadership in the community for at least a month. We were vulnerable to outside community members coming in to buy marijuana or cigarettes and it took awhile for the emergency response unit to actually declare a pandemic on March 23.

My apologies to the translators. I realize I have five minutes and not enough time.

The fact that businesses in Kanehsatà:ke and Kahnwake have been vilified and ostracized by colonial entities made it more problematic, and we felt even more vulnerable at the start of this pandemic. As you may know, we live in a community that has been fighting for three centuries for our rights to our homelands and being ignored, and when you have no rights in a pandemic this does not improve the situation of fear, uncertainty and more land dispossession.

This problematic perspective of course is rooted in institutionalized and societal racism that devalues indigenous peoples' lives that have been subjugated by colonization and its impacts.

As Prime Minister Trudeau declared an epidemic, indigenous peoples were still in the throes of the Wet’suwet'en anti-pipeline protests for indigenous rights, and the pandemic suppressed this movement. While we understand why—because of the health precautions—the construction workers and police remained occupying Wet’suwet'en lands, and they continued in spite of an MOU with the traditional hereditary chiefs.

In Kanehsatà:ke we were trying to deal with economics before rights. We have an elder's home that was shut down when the pandemic was declared, so we have no cases there. I should clarify that the community I come from, Kanehsatà:ke, was also where the the Oka crisis occurred. I heard one of the previous speakers mention Oka Park. That's where I'm coming from.

There was a meeting of mostly local Mohawk merchants. Because we were told to stay home because of COVID-19, nobody knew about this in spite of people like Theresa Tam telling everybody to stay home. In spite of my hesitancy, I do agree with the checkpoints that were put up. There is a preconceived notion—and we are a community villainized by the media and the government—and fallacy that we are lawless, and so public attitudes seemed to dictate that no laws applied to our community even during a pandemic. We have youth who are on spring break coming to our community as if it were their playground.

The pandemic has caused us to be more vulnerable inside our checkpoints. Many human rights abuses were committed and people at the checkpoints were harassed even by the SQ, by a doctor, and by the mayor of Oka. These are outlined in my written submission.

As indigenous people we are shut out in silence by the Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations, Carolyn Bennett. She silences the voices of the traditional government. This is too big an issue to discuss at this parliamentary committee, but on a daily basis we feel vulnerable, especially when land dispossession is continuing because construction has been allowed while everybody has been told to stay home and self-isolate.

We do not have a voice and I think it's safe to say that we suffer from chronic fatigue of institutionalized racism. As indigenous peoples we have been made to feel, throughout our lives, as if we are dispensable by a settler society that has not come to the realization that our rights are human rights. We are peoples with a right to self-determination, but Canada still exerts colonial oppression, stalling any progress that could be made if it upheld the various international human rights norms it is signatory to. Instead, we are placated with engagement sessions that benefit the colonizers' dispossession of our inherent rights.

This year, July 1, 2020, marks the 30th anniversary of the siege of Kanehsatà:ke and Kahnwake, which you know as the Oka crisis. It is a time of awakening of a three centuries' long dispute by the Kanien’kehá:ka of Kanehsatà:ke. The Rotinonhseshá:ka people have been excluded.

As we witness the outrage in the U.S. and internationally of black lives matter and the murder of George Floyd, we see once again the heavy toll that institutionalized racism has taken.

Canada has had plenty of opportunities to make the sorely needed changes. Now it's time for reconciliation and reparations, pandemic or not. Economic self-interest has been the root of colonialization, free-market capitalists and the global economy.

As the first peoples of Turtle Island, we are never given respect for our rights on a daily basis, and more so in a pandemic. The protests and blockades will continue. The teachings of our ancestors tell us that there can be no peace in an atmosphere of fear; there can be no justice when we fight every day for respect for our fundamental human rights.

Thank you very much for listening to me.

5:35 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Bob Bratina

Thank you.

I know that our time seems limited, but over the next hour and several minutes I'm sure you'll be able to expand on some of your points.

We will move now to our final speaker, Mr. Elijah M. Williams, the director of indigenous engagement at the Centre for Indigenous Learning and Support, Sheridan College.

Mr. Williams, you have five minutes.

5:35 p.m.

Elijah Williams Director, Indigenous Engagement, Centre for Indigenous Learning and Support, Sheridan College

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Witnesses and honourable members, I am honoured to be here with you virtually. I am speaking from Oakville, which is in the traditional territory of the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation, the Wendat peoples, and my own people, the Haudenosaunee. I'll be speaking about the snapshot I heard from indigenous learners facing COVID-19 in post-secondary institutions.

COVID-19 has brought out many unprecedented challenges that nobody expected. Post-secondary education was no exception to the pandemic. Students and many of our indigenous learners have had to adjust to a new way of learning, through a virtual experience. In my work as director of indigenous engagement, I have heard from many students regarding this change. Many have had a hard time adjusting. There are students who have no access to proper Internet services on reserve, and in some cases have to drive to a nearby town or Tim Hortons parking lot to access Wi-Fi to conduct their studies.

School is already stressful as it is, but COVID has added a new layer of stress. Students no longer have access to spaces on campus where they would normally conduct their studies and no longer have access to indigenous centres for cultural support.

We have heard a lot that technology is an issue for students as well. A lot of people don't have access to computers or don't have their own computers, so access to campuses is a huge priority. At Sheridan, we have a laptop loan program for students in critical need. It is easy for those who live outside of a reserve community or rural area to immediately switch to remote working and learning, but for many of our students this is not the case. Many are out of work, and many cannot access the important support services that they require without going somewhere in person.

The post-secondary student support program is the main program that administers band funding, and each band has a different way of interpreting the national policy on it. We heard that many students had a difficult time receiving support from their band, as many were living far away from their community. Some students are even required to have an attendance sheet, because of the administrative burden the program places on students and staff.

I also want to bring up the follow-up paperwork that needs to be submitted. Despite COVID-19 and despite that everyone has had to adjust to a new way of working and learning, the deadline to submit follow-up paper submissions has not changed. In fact, instead, it has kept with the status quo. I know that in my own community of Six Nations of the Grand River, a lot of people still have to follow the same deadlines, so if they didn't have the Internet or a computer to apply online for the May 1 deadline, they were not eligible.

When I bring this up, I really hope that people understand that this program needs to be nimble. The information regarding supports for indigenous learners is not clear and there are no updates or guidelines for students who are being funded through their bands. In my belief, stronger communication between governments, organizations and post-secondary institutions will ensure that students are being supported as best they can be, because we at the school have direct contact with many of our learners. The funding formulas for this program should be examined, as many students are applying to post-secondary institutions. As the country reopens, many will also need to re-skill and potentially go back to school.

I heard from two students from different communities in northern Ontario. They were not allowed to go back to their communities because of access restrictions. They had to remain living off reserve because of that. In my view, it appears that indigenous learners are in the grey area when it comes to post-secondary education, as it's mainly a provincial responsibility. However, I know that the federal government has a duty to first nations, Inuit and Métis in this regard as well.

Before I finish, I want to share some exciting news with all of you. Despite the challenges of COVID-19, 51 indigenous learners graduated from Sheridan this term. I'm very proud of all of those students.

Niá:wen.

5:40 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Bob Bratina

Thank you very much

What a good note on which to conclude your presentation, although there is more to come, because now we go to rounds of questions.

Our first round is for six minutes each. I have on my list that the speakers will be Mr. Viersen, Ms. Damoff, Ms. Bérubé and Ms. Gazan.

Arnold, you're up for six minutes.

5:40 p.m.

Conservative

Arnold Viersen Conservative Peace River—Westlock, AB

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Thank you to our witnesses for being here today.

I want to go to Mr. Cardinal first. He was cut off early in his comments on something about the Gaspé. I wonder if he could outline that particular scenario and finish his comments.