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House of Commons Hansard #185 of the 41st Parliament, 2nd Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was marriages.

Topics

United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples ActPrivate Members' Business

7 p.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Conservative Barry Devolin

The time provided for the consideration of private members' business has now expired and the order is dropped to the bottom of the order of precedence on the order paper.

The hon. member for Manicouagan will have six minutes remaining next time.

A motion to adjourn the House under Standing Order 38 deemed to have been moved.

Aboriginal AffairsAdjournment Proceedings

March 12th, 2015 / 7 p.m.

NDP

Niki Ashton NDP Churchill, MB

Mr. Speaker, I appreciate the time granted me tonight to further discuss a crisis for first nations, the crisis of fire safety.

According to a study done by the Government of Canada, first nations living on reserve are 10 times more likely to die in a house fire than people living anywhere else in Canada. I repeat, they are 10 times more likely. This is not isolated to one region or to only a few communities. This is a crisis that is occurring in communities across the country on a regular basis.

I have spoken to dozens of people in the last couple of months, not to mention the families I have visited in my riding, who have personal experiences with death due to house fires. Members of communities from across the country have gotten in touch with me to share their stories of grief and devastation, what they feel and what their community goes through, when a tragic house fire occurs.

In my home province of Manitoba, investigations have demonstrated that residents of Manitoba first nations are far more likely to die in house fires than people living off reserve because of the systemic underfunding of infrastructure. Fire fatalities are high because in many communities, the first nations are struggling with outdated and overcrowded housing as well as a lack of necessary resources to respond to fires when they happen. In fact, although fires on reserve make up less than 5% of all fires in my home province, they tragically account for up to half of the fatalities.

The minister has this information, which is why, along with hundreds of first nations communities, my colleagues and I are left wondering why it is that nothing has changed. Despite the clear evidence that the current way of doing things is not working, the minister refuses to acknowledge the need to take action and the government's role in ensuring that fire safety in first nations is a priority.

A 2012 study found that five reserves, with a combined population of 13,000, had the resources to budget roughly $18 per person for fire services. However, five non-reserve communities of the same size had the resources to allocate $51 per person. It is $18 on reserve per person and $51 off reserve per person. The current federal government and past federal governments have remained silent about this crisis. The minister continues to download the blame to communities that are facing a real need in terms of resources, all while knowing full well that like education, infrastructure for fire safety is funded at less than half of what residents in non-first-nations communities receive.

The high numbers of fire fatalities on reserve clearly demonstrate that something is wrong. The system is broken. A 2010 federal report identified a number of recommendations to improve fire safety on reserve, including evaluating funding for resources and fire safety education. My question is this: What has happened to those recommendations? What actions have been taken by the government to ensure that all communities have the same access to the fire services they so desperately need?

Aboriginal AffairsAdjournment Proceedings

7:05 p.m.

Chilliwack—Fraser Canyon B.C.

Conservative

Mark Strahl ConservativeParliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to respond to the question raised by the member for Churchill.

The original question, of course, dealt with a terrible tragedy on a reserve in northern Saskatchewan, and I would like to start by offering our thoughts and condolences to the families and the community of Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation. Loss of life is a great tragedy, especially when it involves children, and no one can be left untouched by such a terrible event. Provincial fire investigation officials are currently investigating the cause of that fire.

Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada continues to monitor the situation through communication with local fire officials and the first nation.

Let me assure the House that the health and safety of first nations communities is a top priority for our government. We provide annual funding to first nations across Canada to meet the needs of their communities, and this includes funding for fire protection.

In the case Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation, since 2006, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada has provided an average of $17,900 per year for the operation and maintenance of the community's fire hall and fire truck. The department has provided an additional $14,700 annually to the first nation for fire protection.

Moreover, we spent $45,000 in 2006 to purchase a fire truck for this first nation. It is important to remember that although Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada earmarks funds for certain purposes, first nations are ultimately the ones who choose how the money is spent.

We understand that everyone has an important role to play in fire prevention and to ensure that all homes and families are prepared in the event of a fire. That is why we are committed to working together with willing partners, whether they are individual first nations, tribal councils, local fire safety authorities, or national and regional organizations, to ensure that first nations have the tools they need to keep their families and communities safe.

Raising awareness about the importance of fire safety and prevention throughout the year is an important part of our government's efforts to prevent fires and fire-related injuries in first nations communities. We are working closely with the Aboriginal Firefighters Association of Canada to raise awareness about the importance of fire prevention on reserve. This work includes providing funding for an annual firefighter skills development challenge as well as the fire prevention activities for school children.

Our government believes that all Canadians deserve to feel safe and secure in their homes, no matter where they live. That is why we are actively working with our partners to ensure first nations on reserve in Saskatchewan and across Canada meet this rigorous standard.

Aboriginal AffairsAdjournment Proceedings

7:05 p.m.

NDP

Niki Ashton NDP Churchill, MB

Mr. Speaker, I appreciate the willingness put forward by the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development. It is a sentiment we certainly did not hear from the minister in the House the day after the tragedy in Makwa Sahgaiehcan.

There really needs to be a recognition from the government that we are talking about systemic underfunding. Yes, while there is an investigation happening in Makwa, as there should, there are too many first nations across this country that have gone through that same tragedy.

We do not need to wait for another child or another elder or anyone to die in a house fire on reserve for any reason, but certainly the lack of fire equipment, the lack of resources to support firefighters, and equally important, the lack of resources to properly equip houses are the issues we need to be addressing.

I want to say that in recognizing that this is a systemic issue, we need systemic change, and that is where we hope to see the federal government take action.

Aboriginal AffairsAdjournment Proceedings

7:05 p.m.

Conservative

Mark Strahl Conservative Chilliwack—Fraser Canyon, BC

Mr. Speaker, as I indicated in my original response, we certainly have provided ongoing consistent funding to the first nation in question. Whether it is $45,000 for a fire truck or ongoing fire prevention and fire protection funds, we take the health and safety of first nations communities, like this one, very seriously.

We place a premium on working with willing partners to raise awareness about the importance of fire safety and protection. Our government's #BeFireSafe campaign as well as funding that we provide to the Aboriginal Firefighters Association of Canada to raise awareness about fire safety are excellent examples of this commitment.

We continue to provide our support to the Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation, to work with it to prevent similar tragic events from happening in the future, as we do with other first nations right across the country.

HousingAdjournment Proceedings

7:10 p.m.

NDP

Mike Sullivan NDP York South—Weston, ON

Mr. Speaker, my question to the minister on Thursday, January 29, had to do with Beech Hall, a co-op seniors complex in my riding of York South—Weston.

This complex uses federal funding to provide rent assistance to 41 low-income seniors. When the government ends this funding at the end of this year, those 41 seniors will no longer be able to afford their rents and will risk becoming homeless.

The government position seems to be that these operating agreements, which subsidize housing for some 200,000 low-income Canadians, can expire and the funds can be returned to the treasury. The funds are no longer available for rent subsidy. They are available for the Conservatives to help the rich through devices such as income-splitting for high-wage earners and tax-free savings accounts for the rich to hide more of their income from tax. This is so wrong.

Jack Layton, rest his soul, pressured the Liberals to put back some of the money they had so ruthlessly taken out of Canada's housing commitments. The Conservatives voted against it, but they now take glee in pointing to the money as somehow being their idea. It was not.

The bottom line is that as these agreements expire, the Conservatives are refusing to reinvest it in any way in housing. Many of these co-ops are in need of major retrofits. Forty-year-old buildings need new roofs, new heating systems, new windows, and new energy-saving technology. Co-ops will not be able to afford both the necessary repairs and rent subsidies, and the government knows this.

Beech Hall is one such complex. Besides the reality that the government will end their subsidy, the truth is that they do not own the property. It is leased. Lease payments will continue; the subsidy will not. The buildings need $20 million in retrofits over the next 10 years. Beech Hall does have a small reserve, but it is nowhere near the amount needed to provide either the subsidy or the building repairs.

To glibly say, as the minister did when I asked the question, that the federal government provides the provinces with $1.25 billion in housing funding and that the provinces should decide which properties, such as Beech Hall, should receive a provincial subsidy is ignoring the reality of the situation. In 2010 Canada provided $3.6 billion to affordable housing at the federal level. Funding is now down to about $2 billion, and it will fall still further as the operating agreements expire. Just as the Liberals did in the 1990s, the Conservatives are eliminating affordable housing as a federal responsibility.

After the Liberal cuts, the waiting lists in my city of Toronto have continued to grow, to the point that there are more families waiting for housing than there are units in total. Wait lists are now measured not in months or years but decades. The city of Toronto's housing stock, inherited when the Liberals got out of the housing business, needs nearly $2 billion in repairs. The city cannot afford the repairs, let alone try to build new stock for some of those 80,000 families on the wait list. The repair backlog is so great that some 4,000 units are in danger of being unfit for human habitation.

For the government to take even a nickel out of the housing subsidies so that it can give it to the well off to buy their vote is despicable and not in keeping with Canada's rich history of helping the less fortunate.

House prices in Toronto reached a new high of over $1 million for a detached house, and rental prices have followed in lockstep. A recent conversation with a single mother of a disabled child showed just how desperate the situation is. Her rent is more than her income, plus her child support, plus a large part of her child's disability benefits. What is left for food is paltry. She and her child have been on a wait list for eight years.

Conservatives just do not get that their policies will make people homeless. It is time they stopped taking money out of housing to give tax breaks to the rich and started dealing with the problem the Liberals created.

The seniors at Beech Hall are waiting for the minister's answer. Will 41 seniors be left homeless by the government?

HousingAdjournment Proceedings

7:10 p.m.

Chilliwack—Fraser Canyon B.C.

Conservative

Mark Strahl ConservativeParliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development

Mr. Speaker, I welcome the opportunity to respond to the hon. member for York South—Weston. Ensuring that vulnerable Canadians have access to affordable housing is a matter of great importance to our government. This is why we have made unprecedented investments in housing over the past nine years. Hundreds of thousands of Canadians have benefited from these investments, including low-income seniors in the hon. member's riding.

Through Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, our government has invested more than $16.5 billion in housing since 2006, and we are continuing this important work. Again this year, Canada's national housing agency will provide approximately $2 billion in housing investments on behalf of the Government of Canada.

We have also ensured continuity of federal funding for housing programs through the investment in affordable housing, a collaborative effort with the provinces and territories to reduce the number of Canadians in housing need. This initiative was launched by our government in 2011 and has been renewed to 2019 with total federal funding of close to $2 billion over eight years.

This funding is being delivered through bilateral agreements with each province and territory. We believe that provinces and territories are best positioned to design and deliver programs that address local housing needs, and these agreements give them the flexibility to do so. Importantly, they include a commitment of matching funding from the province or territory, thus ensuring that the investment in affordable housing helps as many Canadians as possible.

The hon. member will be pleased to know that one of the ways provinces and territories can use federal funding under the investment in affordable housing is to support projects that may face financial difficulties once their long-term housing agreements with CMHC have matured. As the minister has advised the House on previous occasions, the majority of non-profit and co-operative housing projects are expected to be financially viable and mortgage-free when their agreements mature and federal funding ends, as planned, on dates that have been known since the agreements were signed decades ago. For projects that may face financial difficulties when subsidies end, CMHC has been actively working to help them prepare for the end of their operating agreements.

I want to assure the hon. member that we are not ignoring the housing needs of seniors in his riding or anywhere else in Canada. In fact, they have been key beneficiaries of our housing investments. Through Canada's economic action plan, our government has invested over $1 billion to renovate and retrofit nearly 15,000 social housing projects since 2009, working largely in partnership with provinces and territories. As well, members will recall that economic action plan 2009 provided funding of $400 million for the construction of new housing for low-income seniors and $75 million for new housing for people with disabilities. These investments resulted in the construction of more than 9,000 new housing units for low-income seniors and persons with disabilities across the country.

Since 2006, CMHC's affordable housing centre has helped to create more than 25,000 affordable housing units, including close to 11,000 units for seniors for projects that do not require ongoing federal assistance.

Working with the provinces and territories, we are making smart investments to ensure that Canadians have access to the housing they need.

HousingAdjournment Proceedings

7:15 p.m.

NDP

Mike Sullivan NDP York South—Weston, ON

Mr. Speaker, unfortunately the minister still does not get it.

The fact of the matter is it started out being $3.6 billion in 2010 and even by his numbers it is now $2.25 billion. We have lost $1.5 billion from the housing system in Canada from the federal level.

That loss will be absorbed by people like the seniors at Beech Hall who will no longer be able to afford their rents. There has been no indication from the current government at any time that Beech Hall will somehow be able to receive any assistance from the federal government.

The minister has now said that CMHC is giving them time to prepare. They have been prepared for a long time for the end of this agreement, and they have been pleading with the federal government and CMHC to try to provide a continued subsidy because that is the only way these 41 seniors will stop being homeless.

HousingAdjournment Proceedings

7:15 p.m.

Conservative

Mark Strahl Conservative Chilliwack—Fraser Canyon, BC

Mr. Speaker, once again, our government has made unprecedented investments in housing that are improving the quality of life for low-income seniors and others who may have trouble making ends meet. Rather than putting people at risk, we are working with the provinces and territories to deliver funding where it is needed most and where it will have the greatest impact on reducing the number of Canadians in housing need.

The investment in affordable housing has already supported close to 213,000 households across Canada and tens of thousands more will be helped through the renewal of this initiative to 2019. This is the type of respectful collaborative approach that our government favours, and should be supported by all members of this House.

HousingAdjournment Proceedings

7:15 p.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Conservative Barry Devolin

The motion that the House do now adjourn is deemed to have been adopted. Accordingly the House stands adjourned until tomorrow at 10 a.m. pursuant to Standing Order 24(1).

(The House adjourned at 7:19 p.m.)