It was a polite, orderly, dispassionate discussion, considering the dire and grim matter at hand.
The subject was aboriginal Canada and the talk was about the dreary conditions in First Nations communities and the federal government's failure to do much about them.
The occasion was a meeting, Wednesday afternoon, of the Commons Public Accounts Committee, chaired by NDP MP Dave Christopherson. Committee members were dealing with the Auditor General's damning report of last June on services to First Nations communities.
Appearing before the Committee were the interim Auditor General and other AG officials, and the Deputy Minister of Aboriginal Affairs, with officials from Health Canada and Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation.
In her last report to Parliament, departing Auditor General Sheila Fraser reminded Canadians that she had directed 16 separate audits of First Nations matters over a decade, and had repeatedly seen her many recommendations pushed aside, ignored or implemented with ineffective half measures.
"I am profoundly disappointed to note . . . that . . .a disproportionate number of First Nations people still lack the most basic services that other Canadians take for granted," Fraser said in her report.
"After 10 years in this job, it has become clear to me that if First Nations communities on reserves are going to see meaningful progress in their well-being, a fundamental change is needed."
Far from honey buckets and dusty roads
This Committee meeting was supposed to be all about how the government will now bring about that fundamental change.
Yet there was an air of unreality about it all.
John Wiersema, Interim AG, and Michael Wernick, Deputy Minister, have obvious respect for each other. And Wernick does not in any way wish to deny Sheila Fraser's findings. In fact, he said that last June's report is "the best piece of analysis on First Nations issues ever done."
The discussion that ensued was dense and technical. Sitting in a Centre Block Committee room, surrounded by public servants, politicians and parliamentary staff, it was hard to feel the urgency of the situation. The honey buckets, dusty dirt roads and mouldy homes of so many reserves were a far away backdrop.
The talk focused a lot on complex processes.
We heard about tripartite agreements among aboriginal communities, provinces and the federal government; about working across departments and jurisdictions; about engaging the private sector; about "setting the table" for structural change; and over and over again about dealing with "structural impediments" to progress.
The MPs' questions were, for the most part, earnest and well-informed, and rooted in the same discourse as that of the witnesses. Wernick and his colleagues wanted the MPs to know that the government has made much effort and devoted many resources to improving services for First Nations communities. They have built schools, trained teachers, repaired infrastructure and housing, and improved water treatment.
It is not enough, they readily acknowledge. But, Wernick emphasized, significant progress is stymied by the structural problems the AG identified in June.
Outburst cuts through the jargon
Funding of services to aboriginal people is carried out through contribution agreements between the federal government and often tiny and poor First Nations bands. In other words, the federal government finances health, education, housing and social services for hundreds of thousands of First Nations people the same way it might contribute to a local NGO that helps take seniors to recreational activities. That funding system is, ultimately, unworkable, Wernick told the MPs. And we will need legislation to change it, he added.
The Committee members generally nodded in agreement, and even seemed to agree when Wernick pleaded with them to put aside partisanship in considering aboriginal legislation, and not to expect perfection.
Then, one emotional outburst, from one MP, cut through the atmosphere of bureaucratic detachment.
"This is the most frustrating, disappointing time of an MP's existence!" Tory MP Daryl Kramp exclaimed. "We are regressing! There is no progress! Every time we hear about these issues it is like a broken record. In 2004 we heard about the gap between aboriginal education and Canadian education generally. Now we hear the gap is widening. Yet we have spent billions over that time!"
"What do we need to do? Do we need to put in more money?" Kramp pleaded. "Where do we need to go? Do we need joint action plans? Tell us, please!"
Assistant AG Ronnie Campbell has been the point person on aboriginal affairs for many years, and he told Kramp he shares his frustration as do people in government.
But Deputy Minister Michael Wernick wanted to sound a more hopeful note.
"I am very optimistic," he said. "We have a good road map. We have the necessary legislation in the works. We can expect stable funding and we have the engagement of the First Nations leadership and of the provinces."
Process . . . and the "bureaucratic thing"
And so, we were back to process again. As senior officials see it, if we can get the process right, results will follow.
But anyone who has followed aboriginal matters in Canada since the 1960s will know that it has been one step forward two steps back for decades.
While the Public Accounts Committee studies the question of service delivery for First Nations health, education, water and housing, another committee is considering an omnibus "crime" bill that will likely result in more aboriginals going to jail, for longer periods.
The tar sands project continues to destroy Dene land and water in northern Alberta and the adjacent Northwest Territories.
And a mining company is trying again to get permission to annihilate the fish of an interior B.C. lake on First nations territory (the so-called "Prosperity Mine").
Michael Wernick did talk about the need for an "all of government" approach to aboriginal problems, and intimated that it was not always easy to get the attention of his colleagues in other departments and agencies. The hard truth is that even if today's Aboriginal Affairs is a far cry from the paternalistic "Indian" Affairs of the past, there is only so much one department can do.
Toward the end of Wednesday's meeting, NDP MP Guy Caron asked a question about mould problems in many First Nations communities, which he said had been a subject of some media interest even during the election campaign.
Department of Health official Shelagh Jane Woods responded that the government was taking action.
"We started by doing the bureaucratic thing and setting up a committee," she said.
And then she explained that the government's main action has been to disseminate information about mould control to First Nations communities. She did not tell the Committee members whether there is now more or less mould than six months ago. If she had that information, she did not share it. As with the rest of the day's responses, the focus was on process (that "bureaucratic thing"), not tangible results.
The Public Accounts Committee will continue hearing about all of this on Monday.
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