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Evidence of meeting #9 for Public Accounts in the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was nations.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Michael Wernick  Deputy Minister, Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development
John Wiersema  Interim Auditor General, Office of the Auditor General of Canada
Ronnie Campbell  Assistant Auditor General, Office of the Auditor General of Canada
Douglas Stewart  Vice-President, Policy and Planning, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation
Shelagh Jane Woods  Director General, Primary Health Care and Public Health Directorate, First Nations and Inuit Health Branch, Department of Health

4 p.m.

Douglas Stewart Vice-President, Policy and Planning, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation

Yes, there is one tripartite agreement in place in British Columbia with respect to housing.

4 p.m.

Conservative

Bev Shipley Conservative Lambton—Kent—Middlesex, ON

As we look at partnerships, is that something that reaches out across the country and that you hope to develop further?

4 p.m.

Vice-President, Policy and Planning, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation

Douglas Stewart

Certainly I think it would be beneficial if this model could be replicated in other provinces.

4 p.m.

Conservative

Bev Shipley Conservative Lambton—Kent—Middlesex, ON

Okay.

Then I want to follow up on that. Maybe you could expand on that model a little further.

4 p.m.

Vice-President, Policy and Planning, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation

Douglas Stewart

The model involves the Province of British Columbia and the first nations in British Columbia, as well as the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation and Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada.

There are a number of focuses for the work. In particular, there is an objective of trying to coordinate the activities of the different agencies that have some responsibility with respect to housing. As you can imagine, activities of the province can affect the ability to produce housing on reserve.

There is a focus on governance. Certainly all three partners recognize there is an important job with respect to putting in place the institutions and the governance models that can produce housing.

All three partners are concerned with capacity development, the training and the passage of expertise to first nations from experts in the other two levels of government.

So I think and hope that gives you an indication of some of the activities and concerns of the participants in the MOU.

4:05 p.m.

Conservative

Bev Shipley Conservative Lambton—Kent—Middlesex, ON

I have one more question in my round.

Last week, we talked about small communities. In my riding there are a number of smaller communities, in terms of first nations. Whether it's first nations or small rural municipalities, their size often creates challenges just to be able to provide services. When we're talking about smaller communities and being able to provide the services that are needed, I'm wondering about shared resources. I'm talking about some of those basic services that are needed by communities.

Let me give you an example of what I mean.

What would you be looking at as an agency in terms of support to develop their capacity, whether with water, sewer, or senior housing projects? How do we encourage partnerships for those types of initiatives, even with municipalities—and not just in one community, if you have a number of them that are fairly close together?

4:05 p.m.

Deputy Minister, Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development

Michael Wernick

I guess there are two parts to an answer to that, and I'll try to stay at the very top level.

One is that we do try to encourage aggregation for service delivery, the creation of health and education authorities, or boards that can pool resources, because they can hire the staff and create the public administration to deal with 5, 10, 15, or 20 first nations at the same time, and they're more likely to have results. It can't really be forced, if they're not willing to work together in a configuration like that. But there's been a lot of progress at the level of tribal councils, which line up somewhat with the political structures of the first nations. And there were comments in the Auditor General's chapter about still having a long way to go, in terms of those on-the-ground service arrangements.

The other is capacity-building. Over about 20 years, every time the government has done something, there's usually been a little bit of money associated with capacity and training to implement the initiative. I think we have close to 30 of those initiatives and institutions around. The problem we have now, I think, is that there are too many of them. They're too scattered and we need to consolidate them and make better use of partnerships with the universities, the professional associations, and other sources of expertise. There's about $600 million going into this area, but I don't think Parliament is getting its full value yet if we don't do some consolidation and renovation in this area.

4:05 p.m.

NDP

The Chair NDP David Christopherson

Thank you.

The time has expired. Thank you very much.

We'll go over to Mr. Byrne. You have the floor, sir.

4:05 p.m.

Liberal

Gerry Byrne Liberal Humber—St. Barbe—Baie Verte, NL

Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.

One of the topics that we as parliamentarians can use as benchmarks or milestones in judging progress on the status of improvements is the renovations to, or the construction of, a legislative framework, which the Auditor General has noted is one of the four key planks for future success in improving the quality of life of first nations.

Mr. Wernick, would you be able to provide the committee with a road map, or at least a description, of the specific areas where the department is contemplating legislative proposals for your minister and cabinet to bring forward to Parliament? What areas are being discussed? What would their status be? What are some of the challenges? Basically, lay out a road map as to what areas are being considered for legislation in education, health, and social and community benefits, as described within the status reports and the reflections of the Auditor General.

Then, Mr. Chair, based on that answer from Mr. Wernick, I ask if Mr. Wiersema could provide the committee with his observations as to whether that meets the expectations or suggestions within the findings and recommendations of the Auditor General's office.

4:05 p.m.

NDP

The Chair NDP David Christopherson

Mr. Wernick.

October 24th, 2011 / 4:05 p.m.

Deputy Minister, Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development

Michael Wernick

Thank you for the question.

We actually deal with a fair number of private members' bills and private senators' bills. In terms of government legislation, I hasten to add that the government will decide whether to pursue legislation or not, and Parliament will decide whether to adopt it. There were a number of statements of intention in the Speech from the Throne and the budget to proceed with legislation in this Parliament—and there are others that were being discussed, which will need a cabinet decision as to when and whether they go forward.

To pick up on the question from Ms. Duncan, there are still some first nation consultations to be done before we would think about tabling a bill.

Not strictly speaking in the scope of this chapter, you'll know that Bill S-2 has already been tabled. That's the matrimonial property issue coming back for the fourth time. Hopefully, Parliament will find a way through that in the next little while.

You'll see a number of bills that are related to land claim settlements and treaties. There will probably be at least three or four of those in the next year where you have a specific agreement and you need implementation legislation.

There are probably two that are the most relevant to the chapter. One is water standards legislation. There was a bill on this in the previous Parliament, and we're now in discussions with first nations groups about whether we can make it more palatable. I think you'll see water standards legislation within a matter of months at the outside. That goes straight to one of the issues in the chapter.

The big, elusive one is probably first nations education. We're going through the exercise with a national panel, that is, as a joint project with the Assembly of First Nations—and not without controversy in first nation circles. Once we have that report around Christmas, the minister and the national chief will have to decide how to move forward. I think there's a very good chance of government legislation on first nations education in calendar year 2012.

4:10 p.m.

Interim Auditor General, Office of the Auditor General of Canada

John Wiersema

If I may, Mr. Chairman, I believe the member's question goes to the heart of one of the issues we raised in this report, the issue of improving the legislative base, which is one of the four impediments. I'm not going to tell this committee its business, but one of the recommendations this committee could make is to request from the government exactly the road map you're looking for. That's one of the four impediments. It requires serious attention, Mr. Chairman.

I personally haven't spent a lot of time on first nations reserves, but Mr. Campbell and Mr. Barrett have. Madam Fraser, the former Auditor General, spent a lot of time on reserves, and she and Ronnie and Frank saw what it's like out there. These matters, Mr. Chairman, are serious and they're urgent. We've heard discussion today about a time bomb, or an opportunity. I'm not sure I'll take a position on which they represent, but these are very serious matters. It is not pleasant out there. The Government of Canada and first nations have been dealing with this for some time.

I believe we need clarity and urgent action on all four pillars, including the legislative pillar, if we're going to deal with what the former Auditor General called an unacceptable situation out there.

Thank you.

4:10 p.m.

NDP

The Chair NDP David Christopherson

You have 10 seconds, Mr. Byrne.

4:10 p.m.

Liberal

Gerry Byrne Liberal Humber—St. Barbe—Baie Verte, NL

Mr. Campbell, you may not appear again before our committee in the capacity of auditor of Indian and Northern Affairs and first nations governance. So I just want to say thank you very much for your service.

I understand that you're moving to a different duty within the Office of the Auditor General. So thank you very much.

4:10 p.m.

Assistant Auditor General, Office of the Auditor General of Canada

4:10 p.m.

NDP

The Chair NDP David Christopherson

Perhaps through other questioning, we can get the responses you're looking for from Mr. Campbell. Thank you very much.

We'll go over to Mr. Aspin. You have the floor, sir.

4:10 p.m.

Conservative

Jay Aspin Conservative Nipissing—Timiskaming, ON

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

My question could be classified as a background question. To Mr. Wernick, in 2008 the Prime Minister issued a statement of apology to former students of Indian residential schools. Sir, could you elaborate on what has happened since that time, particularly with regard to advancing reconciliation with aboriginal peoples?

4:10 p.m.

Deputy Minister, Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development

Michael Wernick

Thank you for the question.

I also think that was an important moment in Parliament's history. I remember the day very well.

At some level, reconciliation is achieved every time we deal with an historic issue, if there's a land claim issue or a piece of litigation. Or in the specific claims area, there are grievances about transactions that the Government of Canada made in the past, which were seen as, or were, unfair to first nations in many cases. All of those settlements that bring a bit of closure to the past are a part of reconciliation.

In terms of the residential schools agreement and the Canadians who went to residential schools and whose families and communities were affected, the first job is the steady implementation of that settlement agreement, which started in 2006. We're a little bit past the halfway mark on that. We've dealt with the common experience payment by and large. We're working our way through other parts of the settlement agreement, some of which involve commemoration projects in making sure that history isn't forgotten. And some of it involves the Truth and Reconciliation Commission itself, which is travelling around the country and will be in Halifax this week to have another one of its national events. So that's an important part of it.

Just to answer about another sort of a legislative possibility, which is really purely symbolic in terms of its effect but still an important part of the reconciliation, Minister Strahl committed at the Winnipeg event of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to see if we could find legislation that would wipe off the statutes of Canada all of the provisions that created the residential school system in the first place. I'm hoping that it's a bill that this Parliament will see this fall, as well.

4:15 p.m.

Conservative

Jay Aspin Conservative Nipissing—Timiskaming, ON

Thank you, sir.

You will also recall that the Government of Canada launched an action plan to reform the administration of grants and contributions, G and Cs. Under this action plan, programs and departments were given additional flexibilities for the management of transfer payments. Has the department used these flexibilities to benefit first nations, Inuit, and other recipients?

4:15 p.m.

Deputy Minister, Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development

Michael Wernick

Yes, and this is one of the areas where the picture has improved a little bit since the snapshot was taken by the Auditor General almost a year ago. They caught us partially implementing some of the flexibilities that the transfer payment policy provides.

I do want to go on the record again and say that making a better tool out of contribution agreements is not a complete answer. We over-rely on contribution agreements as a tool. But that being said, I think we can make them smarter and more flexible, and lessen some of the paper burden and bureaucratic overload on first nations. That's a topic the Auditor General has gone back to many times.

We have now been able to hammer out more standard language, language that is common to us and other funding departments. Last year there were about 250 multi-year agreements. We're at well over 750 now. There are some agreements now that are five-years, some that are seven-years, and I think we even have one that is ten-years long agreement. So that has certainly reduced the burden of constant renegotiation of these agreements.

We are working on a couple of pilot projects to see if we can have a single agreement across three or four departments that's a lot easier for the first nation to deal with. There's a very good pilot in Quebec, in Mashteuiatsh, on that front. And we're trying one up north, as well. We have done the risk assessment, which the chapter saw as incomplete at the time. So we've done a thorough risk assessment of all of our recipients, and we're going through a second round of that. That will give us some reasonably objective basis to give some communities much more flexible and long-term agreements. And for others where there's higher risk, we would have shorter and less flexible agreements.

4:15 p.m.

NDP

The Chair NDP David Christopherson

Okay, that's your time, Mr. Aspin. Thank you.

Colleagues, I'll be leaving the chair shortly for another obligation, and the first vice-chair, Mr. Kramp, will assume the chair, so I only have one question and I'd like to insert it now if I can.

Mr. Wernick, in your opening comments you mentioned that you've been in this position 65 months and have been in front of this committee four times. You'll probably recall that I was here for every one of those months and every one of those hearings. You may also recall that the one thing that launched me more than anything else regarding the Auditor General's reports was when there had been previous audits with the same findings and the situation had become worse. And then we would look at the responses from the previous time and see that they were very similar to the ones we would get at the current time. Mr. Kramp and I have been through this a number of cycles.

My question to you is this, and I say it with the greatest respect, that you're the accounting officer and you're on the dime, sir. I accept that the problems are huge and that they're not all yours alone. But I do have to ask the question, sir. What difference is there now between the promises you're making today on behalf of the government versus the promises that have been made in the past that weren't kept? In other words, why should we believe the department today, given the track record on so many of these issues?

4:20 p.m.

Deputy Minister, Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development

Michael Wernick

Thank you for the question, Mr. Chair. Yes, I do remember a lot of the previous questions.

I think what I can tell you is that where there are specific recommendations and specific issues, we do follow through, and there I can point you to dashboards and progress reports. We meticulously follow through every audit finding, every OAG finding, and we do make progress. There's been progress on water, there's been progress on school construction, and there's been enormous progress on settlement of specific claims. I can go through a long list of accomplishments of the men and women in my department over the last five years.

I think the key message of the Auditor General's report, as I hear it—and they can speak for themselves—is that we have reached the limits of a lot of further progress with the tools we have, and that we have to get better tools if Parliament wants better results.

4:20 p.m.

NDP

The Chair NDP David Christopherson

Thank you. I appreciate the answer.

With that we will move on to Madame Blanchette-Lamothe. You have the floor, madame.

4:20 p.m.

NDP

Lysane Blanchette-Lamothe NDP Pierrefonds—Dollard, QC

Thank you. I would also like to thank the witnesses for joining us today.

Mr. Wernick, you said that you strongly support the Auditor General’s assessment. You also said that the six pages of the foreword were a roadmap for Parliament. Just now, you told us about the tools you need. In your view, you are doing as much as you can with the tools available to you.

I would like to give you a chance to expand on that. Do you have something to add on what the government can do to provide the department with better tools?

4:20 p.m.

Deputy Minister, Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development

Michael Wernick

Thank you for your question. I feel we keep going back to the same issue of tools being combined. A combination like that would establish the legislative base, the legislative footing. For some of those activities, it means moving ahead with the tripartite agreements with the provinces and territories for those key areas. Every so often, resources have to be strategically distributed, which might help us with some areas. Combining everything would give us results that are more lasting in the medium and long term.