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Indian Affairs officials must answer to the AG's scorching critique at Committee

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Photo credit: Karl Nerenberg

The Conservative majority has prevented the Public Accounts Committee from studying a number of the "left over" reports from last spring. Those deal with such matters as helicopter cost overruns, mismanaged renovations to the Parliament buildings, and the severance paid to the former public sector integrity commissioner.

But the majority has not shut down consideration of the Auditor General's frank and almost brutal evisceration, last June, of the federal government's management of services to First Nations communities.

On Wednesday afternoon, the Public Accounts Committee will hear from the Auditor General's office and from Indian and Northern Affairs senior officials. The officials will try to explain why so little, if any, progress has been made on the provision of such services as education, drinking water and housing.

To get a sense of where the Auditor General stands on this, here are just a few things it said in its report about the sad conditions in First Nations communities:

". . .we have again found progress to be unsatisfactory on several recommendations we have made over the past decade that are important for the lives and well-being of First Nations people."

". . . conditions have generally not improved for First Nations in each of the areas subject to our audit. The education gap between First Nations living on reserves and the general Canadian population has widened, the shortage of adequate housing on reserves has increased, comparability of child and family services is not ensured, and the reporting requirements on First Nations remain burdensome."

"Broader concerns that we believe have inhibited progress include the lack of clarity about service levels on First Nations reserves, lack of a legislative base to fund service delivery on reserves, a lack of an appropriate funding mechanism, and a lack of organizations that could support local service delivery. There is a risk that living conditions on many First Nations reserves will remain significantly below national averages, with little prospect of a brighter future, until these concerns are addressed."

The Auditor General points out that the 1867 Constitution puts the federal government in charge of services to First Nations communities, services that for the rest of Canadians are provided by provinces, municipalities, other local governments and bodies such as school boards.  Throughout our history, in fact, First Nations communities have been treated as though they were half forgotten colonies. Very little effort was expended to assure that they received equivalent services to other Canadian communities, and, as the Auditor General tells us, the federal government has not even developed a means of comparing service delivery on reserves with the rest of the country.

Although today there is an active and articulate First Nations leadership, we do not yet have anything approaching First Nations self-government and economic autonomy.

Canadians might be forgiven if they assumed that some progress had been achieved. After all, we have been talking about aboriginal self-government and living conditions since the 1980s. We had a series of First Ministers' conferences on aboriginal self- government,  a major Royal Commission on aboriginal Canada and have even formally recognized the injustice done to aboriginal people by the residential schools system.

Yet, on the ground, in the communities, the depressing and dreary conditions persist.
The Auditor General has studied these issues in the past and made many clear recommendations that were simply not implemented.

And so, this past June the AG could still find that "it is not always evident whether the federal government is committed to providing services on reserves of the same range and quality as those provided to other communities across Canada. In some cases, the Department's documents refer to services that are reasonably comparable to those of the provinces. But comparability is often poorly defined . . ."

And that is just the beginning of an excoriating condemnation of federal government policy and practice with regard to aboriginal communities.

On Wednesday afternoon, officials from the Department and the AG officials who have so harshly judged their efforts will be in the same Centre Block Committee room. They will be dispassionate and courteous and professional in their demeanour, no doubt. They are all part of official Ottawa after all. 

It will be interesting to hear, though, what those Department officials have to say about yet another damning report on the near disastrous result of their stewardship of First Nations' affairs.

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