Evidence of meeting #18 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 masks.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Arianne Reza  Assistant Deputy Minister, Procurement, Department of Public Works and Government Services

11 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Bob Bratina

I call the meeting to order.

Welcome to meeting number 18 of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Indigenous and Northern Affairs.

I'd 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 and the proceedings will be available via the House of Commons website. During the meeting the webcast will always show the person speaking rather than the entire committee.

To facilitate the work of our interpreters and ensure an orderly meeting, I would like to outline a few rules.

Interpretation in the video conference will work very much like in a regular committee. You have the choice at the bottom of your screen of either floor, English, or French. To resolve the sound issues, we ask those who wish to speak during the meeting to set your interpretation language as follows. If speaking in English, please ensure you are on the English channel. If speaking in French, please ensure you are on the French channel. As you are speaking, if you plan to alternate from one language to the other, you will need to switch the interpretation channel to align with the language you are speaking. You may wish 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. As you release the bar it will mute itself, like a walkie-talkie.

I remind members and witnesses that all comments should be addressed through the chair. Should members need to request the floor outside their designated time for questions, they should activate their mike and state that they have a point of order. If a member wishes to intervene on a point of order that has been raised by another member, they should use the “raise hand” function. This will signal to the chair your interest to speak, and to do so, click “participants” at the bottom of the screen. When the list comes up, you'll see, next to your name, that you can click “raise hand”. I'll watch for that icon.

When speaking, please speak slowly and clearly. When you are not speaking, your mike should be on mute.

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

Should technical challenges arise, please advise the chair or clerk immediately and the technical team will work to resolve them. 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 the top right corner of their screen and ensure they are on gallery view. With this view you should be able to see all participants in a grid. It will ensure that all video participants can see each other.

During the meeting we'll follow the same rules that usually apply to the opening statements and the rounds of questioning. Witnesses have up to 10 minutes for an opening statement, which is what we will be offering Ms. Bennett.

If everyone is in order and in place, I'd like to welcome our first witness for this hour, the Honourable Carolyn Bennett, the Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations.

Minister Bennett, welcome, and I am giving you 10 minutes for your opening presentation.

June 19th, 2020 / 11 a.m.

Toronto—St. Paul's Ontario

Liberal

Carolyn Bennett LiberalMinister of Crown-Indigenous Relations

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

I'm joining you today from my home in Toronto, on the traditional territory of the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation. I want to acknowledge that you're also on traditional territories.

I'm pleased to be here today to speak about the ongoing work to develop a national action plan in response to the issues identified in the final report and the calls for justice from the national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women and girls.

I think it's important that we recognize that when we all come to terms with the horrifying images and stories over the past several weeks and the undeniable evidence of systemic racism in Canada, it is essential that all Canadians speak out against the racism inherent in colonization.

We need to call out misogyny and discrimination. In fact, it reflects the stories that we've heard for decades from the families and survivors of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls, two-spirit and gender-diverse peoples.

We will not be able to stop this national tragedy until we have dealt effectively with the systemic racism and sexism in our institutions from coast to coast to coast. Every day our hearts are with the families of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls, two-spirit and gender-diverse people and survivors. I promise we will not let them down.

I can assure members that our government is working on an urgent basis with our partners on further concrete actions to end the ongoing tragedy of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls, two-spirit and gender-diverse people, including the development of a national action plan.

We are grateful for all the work of all of the provincial, territorial and indigenous partners toward a national action plan, despite the challenges of COVID-19. Our shared work continues to seek justice and healing for the families and survivors. We are working to create the space where indigenous women, girls, two-spirit and gender-diverse people can take back their rightful place of dignity and leadership.

Since our government was elected in 2015, we have put in place concrete actions to address the national tragedy. The family information liaison units established in 2016 after the pre-inquiry were installed in victims services in every province and territory and have been very well received by families to help them navigate government agencies and to access all the available information they are seeking about their missing or murdered loved ones in the system, and to access healing supports.

Justice Canada is now providing funding to extend these supports to 2023. In 2017 we responded to the inquiry’s interim report with nearly $50 million of investments, increasing health supports and victim services for families and survivors, supporting the RCMP national investigative standards and practices unit and funding organizations with expertise in law enforcement and policing to review police policies and practices.

During the pre-inquiry, the stories of the families and survivors in their poignant testimony demanded changes to the damaging child and family services system, the need to value, preserve and protect indigenous languages and culture, the need toughen criminal law in cases of domestic assault and to eliminate gender discrimination under the Indian Act. We have legislated those changes.

Our historic investments in education, housing, policing and shelters are making a difference. We know more is needed and we are committed to continuing to make the necessary investments and to drive the needed institutional changes that will deal with the systemic and institutional failures that have led to this ongoing tragedy.

Our government, indigenous leaders, survivors, families and the provincial and territorial governments are working hard to develop the national action plan that will set a clear road map to ensure that indigenous women and girls, two-spirit and gender-diverse people are safe wherever they live.

This work began long before COVID-19 and remains a priority. In recent months, fighting COVID-19 has demanded the attention of all of our partners and has presented unique challenges to engagement for everyone. Since the election, we have been providing support to national and regional indigenous organizations representing women, LGBTQ and two-spirit people to ensure that first nations, Inuit and Métis voices are priorities at the centre of our work.

As I told the committee on Tuesday, for a national action plan to be truly accountable, we need to determine the indicators and reporting timelines to ensure an effective and accountable action plan. Governments must report, measure, adapt, measure and adapt. The families and survivors must be part of the work to make sure that this national action plan is truly effective.

The supplementary estimates (A), which passed this week, will provide the first $6 million of the $30 million over the next five years. We have committed to ensuring that families and survivors will be involved in assessing the results obtained by the national action plan and guiding the changes necessary to truly protect the lives of indigenous women and girls, two-spirit and gender-diverse people.

I really look forward to your questions and your advice as we go forward together.

Thank you. Meegwetch.

11:10 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Bob Bratina

Thank you very much, Minister. I appreciate your timeliness because I know our questioners are eager to move forward.

The first round is a six-minute round. I have Mr. Battiste, Ms. Michaud and Ms. Gazan, but I didn't get the Conservative Party speaker. So, Mr. Schmale, Mr. Zimmer, who will be up first?

Mr. Zimmer, please go ahead.

11:10 a.m.

Conservative

Bob Zimmer Conservative Prince George—Peace River—Northern Rockies, BC

Thank you, Chair.

I'd like to thank the minister for coming today and also for some work on some very significant local files. I appreciate your time on them.

Minister, of course we're here about MMIW this morning.

The Native Women's Association of Canada, NWAC, said it was appalled by your decision to delay the national action plan indefinitely. According to NWAC's president, Lorraine Whitman, the government is using the pandemic as an excuse. Others have used words like confused and disappointed.

How do you respond to this reaction to your decision?

11:10 a.m.

Liberal

Carolyn Bennett Liberal Toronto—St. Paul's, ON

The Native Women's Association is a very important partner as we go forward. We received their advice on what they consider important in a national action plan in the past weeks, or month, I think. As we heard last night from the Manitoba coalition, it's really important that those on the front line who are protecting and advocating for indigenous women and girls were also on the front line of COVID-19 and feeding the people in urban centres.

The people on the front lines understand, as well as our partners in the provinces and territories who had some very significant challenges, but we are very optimistic that we will have a national action plan. It will be good; it will be accountable and for the first national public inquiry, it will include all of our national partners with their own chapters and an accountability framework that will not let down the families and survivors.

11:10 a.m.

Conservative

Bob Zimmer Conservative Prince George—Peace River—Northern Rockies, BC

Thank you, Minister.

You brought up the plan and spoke a little about what it looks like, but I'd like you to get into a little more depth and describe the progress to date with the national action plan. We know it's not here yet. Where is it? How soon are you ready to roll it out and get it going?

11:10 a.m.

Liberal

Carolyn Bennett Liberal Toronto—St. Paul's, ON

We are now in the process of having to build the plan from the bottom up. It means that each of the provinces and territories is working on their own chapter.

We had a very positive call with Yukon last month because they were almost ready to release their four-point plan.

Yesterday we heard from Manitoba and, again, I think when the provincial or territorial government works with the women's coalitions as well as the first nations or Inuit or Métis partners, you can see what happens in those concrete actions to stop this tragedy, but we also see the healing.

We are moving forward. One of the things I talked about on Tuesday was, of course, choosing the indicators that will be measured, and how often they will be measured, and how we move over the next five years to make sure this national action plan is working. We will need consensus as to the appropriate indicators, how often they will be measured, how often the families and survivors think the plan needs to be adapted to make it more effective.

That is really important work. As you know, some statistics are easy to find at Statistics Canada. We're going to have to be more intentional about finding others, and we have learned through COVID-19 that unless we have the data in real time, we are operating in the dark. We want to be accountable and show results.

11:15 a.m.

Conservative

Bob Zimmer Conservative Prince George—Peace River—Northern Rockies, BC

You have just spoken about it, and consultation is a big part of this process, or is supposed to be. I know a minister can only do so much, but how do you respond to statements that families of the missing and murdered indigenous women and girls are not being consulted and kept up to date on the progress?

11:15 a.m.

Liberal

Carolyn Bennett Liberal Toronto—St. Paul's, ON

As we have learned from the families and survivors, there is a very important relationship that they have, or need to have, with their provinces and territories. In order to build this up, everything is about making sure that we have effective measures on the ground and then lift up those to a working plan or a national action plan that includes the wise and best practices of all the regions.

Building on strength is what I've heard; don't reinvent the wheel. There are things that are working, like the family liaison units. As we move forward, we will ensure that families and survivors are in the appropriate working groups and are part of developing the plan. We really want them to be essential and central to the evaluation of whether the plan is working as we go forward over the next five years. That's why the $6 million per year for five years has been built into the supplementary estimates this week.

11:15 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Bob Bratina

You have 30 seconds left.

Bob, interpretation needs your mike up a bit.

11:15 a.m.

Conservative

Bob Zimmer Conservative Prince George—Peace River—Northern Rockies, BC

Okay.

I'm just about out of time, but, Minister, I want to thank you for that. I know that there are a lot of people waiting for this to happen. I'm a resident of British Columbia and am close to Prince George. Sadly, I've seen far too many families affected by this. I know that everybody is looking for a solution to this huge problem and situation.

Thank you.

11:15 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Bob Bratina

Thank you very much.

Mr. Battiste, you have six minutes.

11:15 a.m.

Liberal

Jaime Battiste Liberal Sydney—Victoria, NS

Minister, on Wednesday of this week, I attended a healing walk in my riding where we were marching to bring awareness and to highlight our need to take action against racism.

Along the way of about a kilometre walk, we stopped and paid respects in all of the places in that area where we've lost Mi'kmaw people without getting any answers as to why. It was very humbling to see this.

During that time, I was approached by Annie Bernard-Daisley, president of the Nova Scotia Native Women's Association. She shared with me the frustration that she felt in that we haven't acted fast enough on the recommendations of the missing and murdered indigenous women's inquiry's recommendations. I shared with her that I would be willing to come and talk to them and give them an update.

Minister, can you share with me what steps we are taking to address the recommendations and our time frames? Also, can you share with the committee some of the key things you've been hearing during your engagements?

11:15 a.m.

Liberal

Carolyn Bennett Liberal Toronto—St. Paul's, ON

Thank you for this, Jaime.

I think the Nova Scotia Native Women's Association has been really at the front of so many real concrete actions. Certainly, in your province, we are speaking with Minister Kelly Regan, and we are developing together with the Native Women's Association a Nova Scotian plan that is going to be really important.

As I said in my remarks, right from the beginning we weren't going to wait for the final report to begin the work on the legislation that would protect women, girls, and two-spirit and gender-diverse people with the investments in shelters, housing, health care, and healing supports, and the commemoration money that Minister Monsef has been able to distribute. It is about our working together now on developing that national action plan that will be accountable. We do know that it is urgent and that the families and survivors have been waiting a long time for there to be a commission. Now we are impatient about putting in the concrete actions to stop the tragedy. We believe that we, as a federal government, have begun in a good way to deal with the response to the interim report and now the kinds of priorities that the families and survivors have been saying to us for a very long time.

11:20 a.m.

Liberal

Jaime Battiste Liberal Sydney—Victoria, NS

Minister, one of the things there's been a lot of discussion on lately is the systematic racism within the system. Mi'kmaw people and indigenous people across Canada don't feel that they're getting the same treatment in the justice system as regular Canadians. We know that this is an all-of-government approach—provincial, municipal and federal.

Can you tell me a little bit about how we're working with our partners in different government jurisdictions to ensure that future Mi'kmaw women will grow up believing in a justice system that's going to help them, that is going to look after them, and that won't victimize them?

11:20 a.m.

Liberal

Carolyn Bennett Liberal Toronto—St. Paul's, ON

As you know, Jaime, throughout the pre-inquiry what we heard from families was that “it's a justice system, just not for us”, and I think that is really what they feel—that it's not a safe place even to report a missing person. As I've said, some of the families chose not to correct a missing persons report that said the person was Caucasian because they thought the quality of the search or the investigation would be less important if indeed she was viewed to be an indigenous woman, whereas we know what happened in the Downtown Eastside. Somehow, when somebody went missing, it was viewed as inevitable and filled with judgment.

We have a lot to do, because it's not just the policing or the investigation. It's what happens in terms of the charges that are laid, the plea bargaining and the sentencing. Indigenous people do not feel that it is fair, and thus we see all the unacceptable incarceration rates, where often the victim is blamed. That's the way they feel they've been treated.

I think we're working with our partners in the provinces and territories. We had a very positive call yesterday with National Chief Perry Bellegarde and Regional Chiefs Teegee and Picard on moving forward. Minister Blair, Minister Lametti, Minister Miller and I were on a call about a commitment to first nations policing and moving forward on the tripartite agreement that could be almost ready to go in British Columbia in terms of how you change policing to be more community based, and with community members, as we've heard about with the excellent approach in Yukon, with the peace officers there who are reducing the calls to the RCMP by 30%.

I think that having the right to and the statutory funding for first nations policing.... It will be interesting to see whether the Mi'kmaq Nation is also interested in that, following up on the excellent progress that you have had on education and whether we could move that to first nations policing in Nova Scotia as well.

11:20 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Bob Bratina

Thank you very much.

Our next speaker is Madame Michaud.

You have the floor for six minutes.

11:20 a.m.

Bloc

Kristina Michaud Bloc Avignon—La Mitis—Matane—Matapédia, QC

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

I want to say that I'm still in Gaspésie, on the traditional territory of the Mi'kmaq people.

Thank you, Minister, for your opening remarks. I completely agree with you. It's refreshing to hear a minister openly acknowledge the existence of systemic racism in Canada. We'll have the opportunity to discuss the issue at the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security starting next week. I'm very enthusiastic about this perspective.

The national action plan regarding missing indigenous women was supposed to be tabled this month, but this won't happen. Is there a new time frame that you could provide today?

11:20 a.m.

Liberal

Carolyn Bennett Liberal Toronto—St. Paul's, ON

Thank you for agreeing with the need to address systemic racism. This issue exists in all our institutions, including the health care, education and justice systems. I think that these are the effects of colonization. The colonizers were seen as superior.

I think that it's impossible to erase the tragedy of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls. The fight against systemic racism is crucial.

11:25 a.m.

Bloc

Kristina Michaud Bloc Avignon—La Mitis—Matane—Matapédia, QC

We see eye to eye on this. I'm sure that the national action plan, which follows up on the results of the national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women and girls, will help us find solutions. The many people waiting for the tabling of this plan include the Native Women's Association of Canada, or NWAC, and their families.

Do you know when the plan will be tabled?

11:25 a.m.

Liberal

Carolyn Bennett Liberal Toronto—St. Paul's, ON

The first step is to reach a consensus on indicators so that the action plan has the accountability needed to combat this tragedy with the families and survivors. I think that we must have a plan for the next five years that includes indicators and that allows for this accountability. The plan must include chapters for each province or territory and for first nations, Métis people, Inuit and gender diverse peoples.

11:25 a.m.

Bloc

Kristina Michaud Bloc Avignon—La Mitis—Matane—Matapédia, QC

I understand that the different provinces, Quebec and the families are stakeholders in the process, which is under way. In terms of the time frame, are we talking about three months or six months? Can we expect the action plan to be tabled in 2020?

11:25 a.m.

Liberal

Carolyn Bennett Liberal Toronto—St. Paul's, ON

I hope that it will be tabled as soon as possible. I can provide the example of the good work done by Minister Lebel and Minister D'Amours in your province. The work done by the Viens commission and the national inquiry must be reflected in the national plan. I hope that this will be done as soon as possible and that it will be a real plan that will allow for accountability.

11:25 a.m.

Bloc

Kristina Michaud Bloc Avignon—La Mitis—Matane—Matapédia, QC

I imagine that funding will accompany the plan and that there will be concrete measures. Can you elaborate on this? The plan was supposed to be tabled in June, so the work must be well under way. Do you have concrete examples of measures that the government will take to find solutions to the issues identified in the inquiry?

11:25 a.m.

Liberal

Carolyn Bennett Liberal Toronto—St. Paul's, ON

During Zoom meetings, we heard about the critical need for action and investment in the areas of housing, safe transportation, mental health, prevention and support for families and survivors.