By Stephanie Taylor in Ottawa
The federal government still hasn’t provided First Nations with the support they need to respond to emergencies such as wildfires and floods despite warnings almost a decade ago, says a new report from Canada’s auditor general.
Karen Hogan audited Indigenous Services Canada’s handling of emergency management, concluding the department was too reactive, instead of proactively spending on infrastructure to mitigate damages when floods, fires and landslides strike.
The report points out that as of April, there were 112 such projects that did not have funding despite meeting the criteria for eligibility. It says 74 of them had been in the department’s backlog for more than five years.
“Until these projects are completed, First Nations communities are likely to continue to experience emergencies that could be averted by investing in the right infrastructure,” the report reads.
Based on the First Nations Infrastructure Fund’s annual budget of $12 million, it would take the department an estimated 24 years to fund the projects, the report adds.
“As a result, First Nations communities are likely to continue to experience emergencies that could be prevented or mitigated by building the infrastructure.”
Hogan found that the Indigenous Services department provides emergency assistance to First Nations by negotiating agreements with provinces and agencies such as the Canadian Red Cross.
Her report says there have been more than 1,300 emergencies in First Nations communities over the past decade, resulting in more than 130,000 people being forced to leave their homes and traditional lands.
The figures are only expected to grow, given the impacts of climate change, Hogan said, telling a news conference in Ottawa on Tuesday that Indigenous people are “displaced more often by natural disasters.”
Her report warns the department is spending 3.5 times more money helping First Nations recover from such disasters than it is on helping them prepare.
Over the past several fiscal years, that has amounted to $646 million toward responding to disasters on reserves, compared to $182 million on preventive efforts.
“It is likely that Indigenous Services Canada is incurring significant costs to respond to — and help First Nations communities recover from — emergencies that could have been mitigated or avoided,” the report says.
“First Nations will continue to be more vulnerable to emergencies if they are not adequately supported to prepare for and mitigate emergencies.”
Hogan made a series of recommendations, all of which Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu said the department accepts.
“This work has to happen more quickly,” she said Tuesday, adding the government recognizes the need to get ahead of the effects climate change is having on First Nation communities.
The auditor had pointed out, however, that issues flagged by the office back in 2013 went unaddressed.
That included a recommendation, almost a decade ago, calling on Ottawa to identify which First Nations communities were the least equipped to manage an emergency.
Doing that work “would allow the department to target investments in these communities, such as building culverts and dikes to prevent seasonal floods, and to help avoid some of the costs of responding to and recovering from emergencies,” Hogan’s report says.
Manitoba NDP MP Niki Ashton, who represents many First Nations in the province’s north, said in a statement that the federal government is leaving communities to fend for themselves in the face of a “deadly climate crisis.”
“First Nations know what they need to do to manage emergencies in their communities and on their territories and what needs to be done to save lives. But the Liberals aren’t giving them the support they need.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 15, 2022.
Regional chief warns of ‘tight’ turnaround as Ottawa eyes First Nations policing law
By Stephanie Taylor and Jim Bronskill in Ottawa
Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino says he hopes to introduce legislation declaring First Nations policing an essential service early in the new year, with one regional chief calling that timeline “tight.”
In a year-end interview with The Canadian Press, Mendicino said the prospective law is under development with input from Indigenous stakeholders and communities, who he said deserve “the same quality of policing” as non-Indigenous communities.
He described the work as the next step in advancing reconciliation with Indigenous people.
“We need to anchor our work in a relationship that is based on trust, on respect and on a recognition of the inherent right of Indigenous Peoples to self-determine when it comes to public faith,” Mendicino said.
“It is precisely those values that is channelling the work that we are doing on the ground.”
In September, Mendicino told reporters he would “work around the clock” to have the law ready to be introduced this fall, but that did not happen.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to create legislation declaring First Nations policing an essential service in 2020.
However, Ghislain Picard, a regional chief with the Assembly of First Nations representing Quebec and Labrador, says they have been discussing it with the federal government since the early days of Trudeau’s first mandate in 2015.
“Timelines have been pushed back and pushed back,” he said Wednesday.
He said the hope now is to have legislation presented in spring 2023, but “a lot of work has to happen between now and then.”
Picard said that discussions about what the legislation should look like involve not only stakeholders such as the AFN, a national advocacy organization for more than 600 First Nations communities, but also provinces, experts and police chiefs.
“Timelines are going to be tight,” he said.
The Conservative critic for Indigenous services, Gary Vidal, said that his party will review the legislation when it is introduced.
“However, it is already delayed, and that is not a good start if the government wants us to believe it is a priority for them,” he said in a statement.
Trudeau’s government has also faced pressure, including from Indigenous leaders, to reform the RCMP. The national force often acts as the main service for those living on-reserve because of contract policing agreements that it has in place with all provinces except Quebec and Ontario, which have their own provincial forces.
Crimes such as the stabbing rampage on James Smith Cree Nation in September, which left 11 dead and 18 others injured, have amplified the calls for reform.
Federal NDP Indigenous services critic Lori Idlout said that the tragedy reinforced a critical need for First Nations policing.
“The Liberal government keeps failing them through continuous delays in introducing the legislation,” the Nunavut MP said in a statement.
“Indigenous peoples have the solutions; they just need a federal partner willing to provide long-term, sufficient and equitable funding.”
Funding is indeed viewed as one of the major barriers. Since 1991, Ottawa has provided funding for police services on First Nations and in Inuit communities, but an internal evaluation this year found the program suffered from a lack of resources and the underfunding of service agreements.
Passing legislation that declares policing on First Nations to be an essential service is the easy part, Picard said.
“How do we fund it is the harder part,” he said. “This is really what’s at stake here.”
Picard added that many elements will need to be taken into account, such as salaries, benefits, training and infrastructure — not to mention how needs will differ depending on factors such as a community’s remoteness.
“It is complex,” he said.
The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls also flagged concerns around the inadequate funding with the existing program, and its 2019 report included a call to action to “dramatically transform Indigenous policing.”
It said Indigenous police services must be funded to the same level as non-Indigenous ones, and undergo audits by civilian oversight bodies.
There are currently 35 First Nations police services in the country, according to Public Safety Canada, the majority of which operate in Ontario and Quebec.
iation has said it’s received dozens of calls from other communities looking to go the same route, which it says can be a lengthy, complicad process.
Despite not yet coming out with a new law, Mendicino said his government has made progress on the issue by reaching an agreement with the Alberta government and province’s Siksika Nation that would allow the community to transition away from relying on the RCMP and instead create a self-administered police service.
Mendicino pointed out that Ottawa also signed an agreement with the Saskatchewan government and the Prince Albert Grand Council, which includes James Smith Cree Nation, to explore new ways to deliver public safety.
“That’s what moving forward with reconciliation looks like,” he said. “There’s still a long way to go.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 21, 2022.
Advocate asks AFN chiefs to ensure $40B settlement deal leaves no child behind
By Stephanie Taylor in Ottawa
A First Nations child welfare advocate on Wednesday implored chiefs to ensure “no child is left behind” in a landmark $40-billion settlement agreement with the federal government.
Cindy Blackstock delivered the message to an Assembly of First Nations gathering in Ottawa, after being invited to take the stage by Cindy Woodhouse, regional chief in Manitoba who helped negotiate the agreement, which had been thrown into question since being rejected by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal.
The AFN, representing more than 600 First Nations across the country, had asked the tribunal to approve the settlement deal, which would see the government spend $20 billion to compensate families and children for systemic discrimination in the Indigenous child welfare system. It would also spend another $20 billion on making long-term reforms.
Blackstock, the executive director of the First Nations Caring Society who first lodged the complaint at the heart of the issue, raised concerns that the agreement wouldn’t provide $40,000 in compensation to all eligible claimants, which is the amount the tribunal ruled they should get.
“We can make sure that in our First Nations canoe of justice, no child has to see their money go away and no child is left behind in justice,” she said Wednesday.
“We are capable of that.”
Following the tribunal’s decision in October, the federal government filed for a judicial review of some parts of its decision.
Endorsing the settlement agreement loomed as one of the biggest items on the assembly’s agenda, with chiefs being asked to vote on what the organization should do next.
The chiefs had been preparing to vote on conflicting resolutions, with one asking them to support the final settlement agreement, while another sought to see the organization not appeal the tribunal decision and renegotiate the deal.
But on Wednesday, further talks between both sides took place, assisted by former senator and judge Murray Sinclair, who helped the AFN, federal government and lawyers for two related class-action lawsuits reach the $40-billion agreement in the first place, which was formally announced in January.
Chiefs ultimately voted late Wednesday against re-entering negotiations but to instead support compensation for victims outlined in the agreement and “those already legally entitled to the $40,000 plus interest under the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal compensation orders.”
It also included a provision that AFN leaders must regularly return to chiefs to provide it with progress updates and “seek direction” from chiefs on implementing the final agreement.
Many chiefs thanked Blackstock, who was greeted with applause after further agreement was met and said she was honoured to see people come together for children harmed by Ottawa’s discrimination.
“We have had too many apologies, we’ve had too many compensation deals, we’ve had too many kids hurt. And this has got to be it,” she said.
She added more discussion on the long-term reform part of the deal would be presented to chiefs on Thursday.
Earlier in the day, the assembly heard from sisters Melissa Walterson and Karen Osachoff, plaintiffs on the case, about the impact the foster care system had on their lives.
Osachoff said she had been in the child welfare system since she was born and didn’t have a chance to grow up with her sister.
“Had it not been for the ’60s Scoop and the child welfare (system), her and I would have grown up together.”
She said she understands why the tribunal characterizes those like her as “victims,” but told chiefs to instead think of them as survivors.
“I am not a victim and our claimants are not victims.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 7, 2022.
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